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Guidelines for working with reporters: Assessors' guide to positive press

The media is a great way to get your message(s) out to the public. Here are some simple cautions and techniques you should bear in mind.

Prepare before an interview (whether in person or by phone).

1. Formulate your message(s) and be prepared to repeat it several times. As you prepare your message, know the difference between news and information. If you have news, it will be relatively easy to "make the papers." However, if you're trying to convey information, you may need to make special efforts. For instance, an announcement of the tentative roll being made public or the time, dates and deadlines for Grievance Day is considered news. However, the assessment process or the assessor's responsibilities are not usually considered news. By combining "news" with "information," you'll have a better chance of conveying your message.

2. Decide what you can and can't (or should and shouldn't) discuss and stick to it.

3. Prepare short quotes and put on them on an index card. This will be useful to remind yourself to repeat your message(s) and assist in setting the agenda of the interview.

4. Stress the positive side of what you do.

5. Prepare a press kit. Include the appropriate pamphlets and other information, including facts and data, to support your messages and assist the reporter. If the news or article is lengthy, provide the information in an electronic format. Reporters will appreciate not having to retype it.

Remember to save an electronic and hard copy of each press release - there is nothing to be gained from reinventing the wheel.

6. Try to anticipate questions and have concise answers prepared.

7. Understand the reporters' deadlines

Whether you're pitching a story to a reporter, trying to get attention for a press release, or calling to follow-up on an interview, it is important that you understand the reporter's timeframes. If it is a morning newspaper, call early in the morning. For an afternoon paper, call early in the afternoon. This way, you'll be calling when there is less deadline pressure and the reporter is more likely to have time to listen to your side and work on your story.

Just as important, when a reporter calls you, always respond as soon as possible. If you won't be in the office, but expect that a reporter might call, leave word where you can be reached so you can respond quickly.

Of course, it is okay to be persistent, but don't overdo it. If you won't be in the office, but expect that a reporter might call, leave word where you can be reached so you can respond quickly.

During the interview

1. Stay on the record.  Assume what you say and do will get on the air or the printed page. While you can say things "off the record," that doesn't mean the media won't print it and give you attribution. Reporters are paid to find out things no one else knows, and then tell the world. Going "off the record" makes their jobs tougher, and, if you don't have a trusting relationship with the reporter, they may not honor your request anyway. As a rule, don't say anything you don't want to see on the air or in print.

2. Keep it simple. Talk in a relaxed style that is aimed at laypersons, not subject experts. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Remember that the audience is the general public.

3. Be accurate, thoughtful and cautious.  Think before you speak. Choose your words carefully, since they will likely be reported as you say them. If you don't know the answer, it's much better to say, "I don't know," rather than give a wrong answer. You can promise to get an answer and get back in touch, in which case you should do so as soon as possible. This will give you time to develop a considered response.

In addition, it is wise to take a minute to think about the answer to your question, rather than rushing to answer. Remember, an inaccurate statement can become a problem for other assessors if it is printed.

3. Be brief.  You don't have to tell the reporter your views on everything. In fact, you should be careful about rambling answers - they give the reporter the opportunity to reconstruct your statements, which may not work out to your advantage.

You should especially keep your answers short when the questions become particularly challenging or pointed. In a controversial situation, the less said the better. Longer sentences can open the door to misinterpretation, paint you into the corner, or reveal information that you do not want made public.

4. Stay on message, stay on message, stay on message.  Repetition is the essence of retention. You know your message; you've rehearsed it on property owners for weeks, maybe years; now use it effectively with the reporter. While the reporter may want to talk about one thing, your message may not exactly coincide. Use the reporter's questions to bridge to your own points. Answer the question, but be sure to repeat your message in the process. For instance, "Well that works such and such a way, but homeowners need to bear in mind that assessments are really about fairness and equity."

In addition, if a reporter asks you a question, particularly one that makes a statement (e.g., "So, you're saying that homeowners should pay higher taxes?"), you must challenge any and all parts that are not true. Again, this is an opportunity to repeat your message - "No, what I've been saying is that All property owners should pay their fair share of taxes based upon the market value of their properties."

Another great way to restate your message is by starting your sentence with, "the most important thing is".