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For the Media: Our Philosophy of Media Relations

Working with the News Media

The campus-wide news media policy found below is designed to foster a positive relationship with those reporters covering Calvin. It is adapted from policies at DePaul, Drury, Georgetown, Penn State and the Medical College of Georgia. For more contact media relations manager Matt Kucinski at (616) 526-8935 or msk23@calvin.edu or contact Phil de Haan at (616) 526-6475 or dehp@calvin.edu.

Why Should We?

One might wonder why we have or need a media relations office. The answer, simply put, is that Calvin College has stories to tell -- everything from exciting new programs to stimulating lectures to outstanding faculty teaching and research takes place with regularity at Calvin. Many of these have the potential to be featured in the media.

West Michigan has a large variety of news media, including several daily papers, many weeklies, all of the major TV networks and a competitive array of radio stations. Though popular media often are seen as contributing to the problems of society, our belief in media relations is that the media is not the enemy, but rather an ally. They are in the business of telling stories and we have stories to tell. A good relationship between Calvin and the media makes good sense.

We try, at Calvin, to be a liaison between the stories taking place on our campus and local, state and national media. Sometimes the events of campus make their way to media outlets without our assistance. That's great. But more often media would not know the stories of campus were we not interacting with them on a regular basis. To do a good job representing Calvin to media means, however, that we stay in touch with the campus pulse. We try to stay in touch with faculty, students and staff so that we know the stories being written each day at Calvin.

Once a connection is made between a reporter and a Calvin faculty member, student or staff member, we hope that the relationship will flower. As the media relations folks at DePaul say: "If a reporter finds that you have up-to-date knowledge on topics in your field and can provide prompt analysis, the reporter is likely to call you regularly. You benefit because your point of view is shared with a broader audience than it might otherwise have reached, and the university's academic reputation is enhanced . . ."

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Expert Commentary

Calvin faculty who are able, and willing, to provide "expert" commentary help society understand the important events of our times. Although this is a service that may go above and beyond the usual duties of a professor, it is nonetheless an important service -- one that should not be overlooked. It is a service that is appreciated by the Calvin media relations office. It also is appreciated by the deans, the provost and the president.

By the way, don't get too nervous about that word "expert" in the paragraph above. Calvin faculty often are used to provide comments, analysis, etc on issues of the day and often they wonder if they are indeed "experts." Although news media themselves usually are astute and seasoned practitioners, they write and produce stories for a wide audience and thus they need to keep things pretty basic. In most cases reporters will be looking for the sorts of insights you might offer in an introductory course -- not the kinds of discussions you might lead in an upper level seminar or a graduate course. However, if a reporter calls about a story and you find yourself out of your league, let the reporter know. Perhaps suggest someone else in the area who may be of assistance. But don't do this too often!

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A Reporter's On the Phone (or at the door!)

If you are contacted directly by a reporter and your feel prepared to answer the questions, go ahead and do the interview. Be sure to ask the reporters name, media affiliation and a phone number in case you want to clarify something later. You should know who is interviewing you and what organization they represent. If you are unfamiliar with either the person or their organization, ask questions. After the interview, please alert the media relations manager, so we can perform any necessary follow-ups, such as providing a photograph or tracking down a copy of the story when it runs.

If you think some preparation before the interview would be helpful, tell the reporter you need a few moments to collect your thoughts and that you will call back as soon as possible. Ask the reporter what questions will be asked so you can begin formulating answers. Then call media relations for assistance. In many cases, we will know something about the reporter and we may have useful background information on the publication or show. We can talk you through potential questions and help you to start thinking about the issues which the reporter may want to cover. This preparation will assist both you and the reporter. You will be more comfortable with the subject matter and the reporter thus will gain a better interview.

If you have time prior to the interview, do some homework. Be as familiar with the facts as you can be. Check any resources available. Try to tune in to a late news cast or review the morning paper to be sure there is no late breaking news that will change your response. Don't memorize your statement or response. It can make you appear stilted and pompous. Do organize the key points you want to make. You may put the key points on a card or a page in front of you and have it handy -- especially for an over-the-phone interview.

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Deadlines

Journalists work with deadlines -- some are tighter than others. It's important to understand the time pressures that reporters have. Suffice it to say that their deadlines are significantly different than those found in the world of academia. When possible, try to work with reporters on deadline. If you are unable to do so be sure to let the reporter know that you would be happy to assist him or her the next time around. Reporters understand that the lives of college professors also are busy!

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The Interview

You have the right to agree with the reporter before the interview starts on some ground rules. Avoid "off the record" comments. There really is no such thing. But since most tend to ignore this advice, let me add, should you or your interviewer agree to "off the record" comments you do have the right for that agreement to be honored. You also have the right to be comfortable during the interview. you may be seated of you prefer and have space to move slightly. Avoid awkward body positions. You don't have to have lights or a microphone stuck in your face. You have the right to conclude the interview after reasonable time. That is after the important questions have been answered.

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Know the Media

For radio interviews watch your interviewer for cues. If it's in person to keep hands and paper off the table of a microphone or recorder is placed there. If you are interviewed by telephone speak as normally as possible. Don't exaggerate closeness to the mouth piece or speak loudly. Keep responses short and to the point. Most radio news interviews are used as part of a story that will last no longer than 30 to 60 seconds. Visualize one person and keep your conversation on a personal level. Remember, your voice is your only contact with the listener. They'll remember the decisiveness as much as the substance of what you've said. Don't strive for first name basis with the interviewer. It could impair objectivity.

For television, check your appearance. If there's time, a quick shave for touch up to make up and wrinkle smoothing is in order. If you wear glasses, don't remove them for the interview. you may appear or act unnaturally without them. If you're wearing a hat, remove it. It's likely to cast shadows across your face. Medium tones in clothing are best. Light colored but not white, shirts and blouses are best. Avoid distracting stripes, pronounced checks or sharply contrasting patterns. If you wear jewelry, keep it simple. Highly polished gold or silver jewelry and large stones tend to flare and distort video pickups. Stand or sit straight. Don't lean back or be too relaxed. Keep your head up and look into the camera when responding. Eye contact with the viewer is TV's equivalent to the radio/voice contact. You want to strive for a personal relationship.

For the print media, know the format: a daily paper, a general business paper, a trade publication. Each has a different point of view. Know the reporter. Has he or she recently written about a related subject. Will the article be a feature or short piece. Does the reporter have a reputation for accuracy and objectivity. Is it likely that you will be put on the spot? Organize your facts and figures. Dates, statistics, sources of information, have them documented. Provide supporting documents when you can. Have copies of information or related stories in other media to assist your interviewer. If no photographer appears you may refer them to our office for a photo of yourself. Be forthright, honest and speak in facts rather than generalities. If you don't know or can't totally answer a question offer to get back with the reporter and then do so in a timely manner.

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Calendar listings, PSAs, etc.

In addition to the sexier media contacts such as feature stories, guest commentaries, etc, we also work in media relations on some more mundane pursuits -- such things as calendar listings, public service announcements, etc. These are handy if you have a lecture coming up for which you would like to garner some free publicity. Although this is a lesser known and less exciting form of media relations, it nonetheless has an important place in our work.

We are able to garner free publicity only, however, with sufficient lead time. This means two weeks or more for daily publications, TV and radio and as much as two months for monthly publications. And these listings tend to be small. If you want to attract participants to an event and guarantee that the public knows about your program, you should consider advertising. We can assist you in that effort as well. It's important to note that although media people deny any direct correlation between paid advertising and coverage there does seem to be a synergy there that is subtle yet effective. Part of this may be because editors read their own paper. Thus, if they see an ad for an event it reinforces in their minds that this is an important happening. If they get an advisory, but see no advertising, they may think the event is too small to be important. Consider even a modest ad budget as you think about publicizing your event.

Our media advisories let reporters and editors know about activities on the Calvin campus, but, of course, they are no guarantee that a reporter will show up. We will work hard to make that happen. If we suceed be aware that the reporter will want to observe the activity (perhaps even videotape or photograph it), do interviews, get background info and more. Our informal policy, as well, is to never charge legitimate, working media for attendance at Calvin events.

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Dealing with the News Media — Times of Crisis

Calvin is fortunate enough to have credibility with the West Michigan media. Reasons for this are myriad but Calvin's philosophy of media relations contributes to the goodwill between the school and local media outlets. Calvin strives in its media relations program to be honest and forthright, particularly with information pertaining to emergencies, crimes, controversy and other events to which reporters have reasonable claim.

It is important that our media relations relations director always practice -- with the full cooperation of the administration -- policies and procedures which will gain the respect and confidence of the news media. This is accomplished through candor and cooperation.

During crimes and controversies -- as well as more mundane matters -- it is up to the media relations manager to quickly get the facts to the media. Hiding or suppressing bad news invariably leads to unhappy consequences. Rumors are usually worse than fact. It is often wise for media relations director to take the initiative in communicating "bad news" to the media for two other reasons.

  1. Being first with the story gives Calvin an opportunity to emphasize positive points. The result is a fair and balanced account of what really happened, rather than a one-sided or distorted picture.

  2. Such a procedure enhances Calvin's credibility with both the reporters and the public. In organizations where credibility is questioned, the media relations office generally is bypassed in seeking the facts in a story.

The media relations manager is authorized to release information pertaining to emergencies, crimes, controversies, and other events to which the news media have a reasonable claim. Administrators are asked to keep the media relations office fully informed, both factually and promptly, about such activities in their areas of responsibility.

Underlying considerations for developing this policy are:

Old fashioned honesty is still the best policy in dealing with the media. Without it, no public relations person can maintain credibility with the media, whose reporters are quick to detect falsehood.

The realization that there are distinct and necessary differences between a publicist, whose duty it is to advance a particular cause, and the reporters, whose job it is to obtain news. Such basic differences are healthy and should be viewed so by both parties. Therefore, we should make certain that no one on campus bottles up news to which a reporter has a legitimate claim.

The various publics (ours included) who are asked to support our institutions of higher learning have a right to know what's going on. This includes bad and good.

When people don't cooperate with the news media, or attempt to suppress news, rumors have a tendency to gain prominence over facts. Moreover, "suppressed" stories tend to linger on and to receive play far in excess of their news interest.

To aid in answering a reporter, we offer these suggestions:

  1. First, get the reporter's name and the publication or station that is being represented. Then, if you feel that the request for information is reasonable, give your full cooperation.

  2. In answering questions, be fair, friendly and factual.

  3. Normally, you are expected to comment only on matters within your area of expertise. Refer the reporter to media relations if his or her question can best be answered by others.

  4. Some reporters may ask you to comment on a controversial issue with the promise that, if you so wish, your name will not be used. Unless you know the reporter, it is not usually wise to do so (when in doubt, you may want to call media relations for advice).

  5. When you give a personal opinion on any subject, make certain that the reporter understands that you are speaking for yourself, not for your colleagues or the administration.

  6. Don't assume that you will see the reporter's story before it is published or broadcast. If scientific or technical data are involved, you might suggest that the reporter check the story back for accuracy, particularly if the reporter is not a writer specializing in the field. Some reporters are willing to check their technical data back with the source to assure accuracy if time permits.

  7. When an interview is for broadcast, remember that people in radio and television news usually can report only the barest essentials of a story. They are looking for succinct answers; avoid time-consuming details, rambling explanations and complicated answers.

  8. Most reporters dislike material which is "off-the-record." If for some reason you feel that you must make remarks "off-the-record," do so according to the following standards for journalistic ethics:

a) Preface statement by saying, "The following is off-the-record."

b) Indicate clearly when the reporter is "on-the-record" again.

c) Don't say belatedly, "What I just gave you is off-the-record."

After answering a news media query, please inform media relations of the call and your response. Staff who receive queries on policy matters should refer reporters either to their department heads, supervisors or the media relations manager.

Members of the staff should refer queries to the media relations manager when:

  1. The office of media relations has already been provided information concerning the subject for which the information is being sought.

  2. The query deals with an area where responsibility lies with or is shared with another administrative area.

  3. The query deals with a matter of college-wide concern or policy.

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