No, No, No: This Is Not How You Handle A Media Ambush
Last week, PR Daily and PR Newser covered the story of a St. Louis public information officer named Melanie Streeper, who attempted to thwart a reporter from interviewing her boss by shouting “No, no no!” repeatedly, as cameras rolled.
Local reporter Elliott Davis wanted to ask St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green about her take-home car, which taxpayers are on the hook for to the tune of $26,000. He tried to arrange an interview with Ms. Green but was denied—so he showed up at her office instead.
This post will focus on what Ms. Streeper and her boss should have done—and offer you tips for how you can handle a similar ambush more effectively.
1. Remember That Obstructionism Doesn’t Work
Ms. Streeper’s email to Mr. Davis, which stated, “She will not be speaking about this issue with any reporters,” only intensified his efforts to get her on the record. Even a short statement about the issue sent via email could have reduced the risk of him showing up at her office.
2. Don’t Make The Story Bigger Than It Is
Ms. Streeper’s heated reaction only accomplished one thing: it told the reporter and viewers that she (or her boss) had something to hide. She ignored the first rule of ambush interviews, which is to deny reporters a “money shot” they can use to promote the suddenly sensational encounter.
That’s unfortunate, because Mr. Davis was asking a question that, with even a minimum of media training, should have been easily answerable. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“Dozens of appointed city officials and their staff members do get take-home vehicles, records show. Officials say those cars are necessary to keep the city functioning.
Some cities across the nation have begun removing vehicle privileges for elected officials, but they are still common in many places.”
Therefore, all Ms. Green had to do was say:
“Take-home vehicles are part of the overall compensation package for many city officials, because we are often using those cars to drive all over the city to serve our constituents. Take-home vehicles are common for top government officials in many cities. Although I believe that’s fair, the people I serve are welcome to contact my office if they disagree.”
With that, her office would probably get a small trickle of phone calls, and the issue would likely disappear.
3. Make Sure The Boss and Spokesperson Are Coordinated
When confronted, Ms. Green indicated that she didn’t turn down Davis’s original interview request, but only asked to schedule it for a more convenient time. That’s not what her spokesperson’s email said. That means one of three things: Green was lying, she was confused, or her spokesperson went rogue.
4. Don’t Double Down on a Bad Hand
Even after that dreadful on-air encounter, Ms. Streeper decided to maintain her doomed attempt at control by emailing Mr. Davis this:
“No sit-down will be scheduled until we have all of your questions sent to us.”
Davis rightly refused those terms and disclosed the request to his audience. And the request itself was silly, because even if a reporter agreed to such terms, he would be able to change his mind while cameras were rolling, rendering the “rules” meaningless.
Again, see point number two above. With even a touch of preparation, such stringent attempts at media management would have been unnecessary.
(In fairness to Ms. Streeper, it’s at least possible that her boss is giving her these ill-conceived marching orders, which she is in the uncomfortable position of implementing.)
5. Lead, If You’re a Leader
Finally, a tip regarding Ms. Green. She should have stopped her spokesperson’s attempt to break up the interview by saying, “It’s okay, Melanie. I got this.”
As an example, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell shut down his media aide when she attempted to discontinue a live interview on Meet the Press.