For everyone out there who envisions themselves on a White House podium doling out answers to reporters’ pressing questions, welcome to the traditional steppingstone: the Capitol Hill press secretary slot.
The congressional flack has a very different job than that of the White House press secretary. Despite the intense interest in their boss’s actions, the best press secretaries remain behind the scenes, rather than at the lecterns. Often, the only time they see their names in print is as the contact on a press release.
One of the best (hardest? trickiest?) parts of the jobs is dealing with reporters. Even the most obscure member of Congress has a hometown paper interested in his or her dealings, so if you’re in communications on Capitol Hill, you likely have a few reporters you interact with regularly. And if you’re smart, you’re building those relationships, growing your press lists and sending out releases promoting your boss. But Hill Navigator wants to make your job even easier, so we put together a few tips and tricks to help you succeed and become the most effective flack ever.
1. Reporters are not your friends. Sure, you can “friend” them on Facebook and go out for beers or even invite them to your wedding, but as a rule the reporter-flack relationship is a professional one, and members of the press do not extend the same heads-up or preferential courtesies to you that a friend would. Favors work both ways, and there are times when your professional relationship might get terse. Keep in mind it’s not personal. It’s business. You both have jobs to do.
2. The Capitol Hill press corps is not a singular homogeneous entity. Whether you think the media is out to get you, or is a vast right- or left-wing conspiracy, reporters are not tied to one another with a unified agenda. Most news outlets have a particular take on a story. They might want a local angle, or a congressional angle, an ideological angle, or, in some cases, an angle that no one has heard of before. Each should be handled differently. This is why building relationships with reporters and understanding their beats will make for a better story and explanation to your boss about what they are looking for.
3. Reporters hate canned quotes. If a reporter spends a day, or a week, or a month doing research and due diligence on a story and then calls your office for your input, give that person the professional courtesy of providing something unique and relevant. This doesn’t mean you have to create news or drama where there isn’t any. But handing over an old press release or giving a platitude-laden quote that says nothing of substance is, at best, useless, and at worst, insulting. Hill Navigator has spent many hours writing both press releases and news stories and can assure you the latter take far more time and effort.
4. Do your homework. This is easier for a seasoned flack, but when you’re starting out, do some basic recon on who these reporters are and what they cover. Don’t be the ignoramus who sends a farm bill release to the person covering transportation appropriations. Be mindful of deadlines and how the reporters typically cover Congress. Do they want quotes early? Prefer talking to the boss directly? Do they want to receive everything you send out, even things that aren’t relevant to their beats? Google makes your job even easier. Set up alerts for the reporters who cover your office closely; it will keep you posted on what they’re writing and make you look smart for following along.
5. Be reasonable. Reporters are more willing to accommodate your quirky request or unpredictable boss if you understand that they have a job to do, too. If you make mistakes, own up to them. If you want to talk, make sure it’s a good time to do so before launching into a tirade. If they ask for something, be responsive, even if it means responding with, “Let me check on that and get right back to you.” Keep in mind that reporters and flacks alike switch jobs often — Washington is a small town. The more reasonable you are to work with, the better it will serve you in the long run.
6. Know the rules. “Off the record” means different things to different reporters, as does “on background” and “not for attribution.” Before you start talking about things you don’t want attributed to you, agree on ground rules. And of course, be smart about “off the record.” A reporter cannot unhear what he has just heard. Hill Navigator’s two cents is not to make “off the record” remarks without establishing some trust with the reporter — and don’t use it if what you’re saying can get you fired. At the end of the day, you still have a job to do. It’s presumably one you want to keep.