In Student Blogs, Visiting speakers

Communicating with a council press office is an essential part of local reporting writes Brighton Journalist Works NCTJ student, Alexandra Cook.

Former Brighton and Hove City Council press officer, Tracey Walters, gave students top tips on how to build a good relationship.

Brighton Town Hall, seat of Brighton and Hove City Council. Image by Mike Quinn, licenced by Creative Commons

Brighton Town Hall

Do your research

It’s important to know whether the press office actually has the information you require.

You may find yourself waiting on a response because your inquiry would have been better addressed to the NHS or the police.

Remember, council websites also have a great deal of information, including minutes of committee meetings. Recent FOI requests may have put the answer you are looking for out there already. You just need to find it.

Do not ignore protocol

It is expected that all media inquires will go through the press office. If you try to bypass it and go directly to a councillor, you are likely to get re-directed back to the press department.

To save everyone’s time, including your own, remember protocol.

Be specific

It is important to frame your questions properly so the press office can respond quicker and more directly.

Avoid asking generalities about plans or goals. Instead, ask for a response about the implementation of a specific programme or the allocation of certain funding.

A woman on the phone

Speaking on the phone is better for journalism students who do not have a newspaper email address

Pick up the phone

Talking over the phone may seem old fashioned but it is often the most efficient way to get an answer.

This is especially true for trainee journalists. Lacking a professional email address, they can easily get nudged to the bottom of the response pile.

Find a name

Press officers often have different areas of expertise. Finding out the name of the person you want to speak to is more professional and is likely to get you a quicker and more detailed response.
Plan ahead

Calling at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon is unlikely to produce the facts you need for a story in Saturday’s paper. Bear in mind your query is one of many, so plan ahead and allow a few days for a response.

Build relationships

Be cheerful, friendly and positive. As with anything in life, you will get a better response by building up a rapport with people. The nicer you are and the more they feel they know you, the more likely they are to help.

“No comment”

These are the dreaded two words. If you print “no comment” it looks as if the press office has not done its job properly. In fact it may have tried hard to get you a comment.

Although often necessary, treat these words with caution.

Remember the press office is apolitical

The press office must remain impartial. It is not your port of call for political opinion.

Also bear in mind it is the press office’s job to make the council look good, so read between the lines of what it is saying.

It is OK to call back

Rather than feel as though you are chasing people, Tracey said that calling back is a good thing.

So do not be afraid to pick up the phone to give a gentle reminder if you are still waiting on a response.

Alexandra Cook studied on the 16-week Fast Track NCTJ Diploma course at Brighton Journalist Works.


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