Reporters and e-mail. Well, not always.

I don’t have any problems sending news releases to reporters by e-mail. Every time you attend a conference or meeting on media relations these days that seems to be the preferred distribution. (Unless you are talking about timely disclosure announcements, etc.) But what about answering questions from reporters? I thought about that this morning while on the treadmill (way too cold, snowy and icy to be on the road). That situation came up last week in a story involving Kent State.

Bill Sledzik has the details on his Tough Sledding blog. I won’t rehash it here. But it’s fair to say the story was not favorable to the university or to the administration.

But here’s the point. When asked to comment on the story by Akron Beacon Journal reporter Carol Biliczky, the administration passed. Biliczky reported that the administration responded to her questions by e-mail. I’ve known Carol Biliczky for more than 20 years. We worked together at BFGoodrich before she moved to the Beacon Journal. Carol is an excellent reporter. She is fair. She does her homework. And she listens. So why not talk to her? And what are the long-term implications of responding to her via e-mail?

As best I can tell, there are four newspapers that routinely cover Kent State. The Daily Kent Stater, The Plain Dealer, The Record Courier and the Akron Beacon Journal. In our public relations classes we teach students (among other things) to be responsible and responsive when working with reporters. I don’t think the e-mail response to the Beacon Journal met either of those tests. And what happens tomorrow or next week when Kent State has a story it would like Carol Biliczky to consider? Well, it is about relationships – in the long run.

In saying this, I am not being critical of Kent State’s public relations professionals. They work hard, represent the university well and achieve a lot under sometimes challenging conditions. I know this because I spend part of my days working with them and also with students who work with our student-run public relations firm, Flash Communications. I don’t know who made the strategic decision about how to respond to the story. And it doesn’t matter.

Still, this is a learning opportunity for our public relations students. (And I hope at least some will become regular readers of this blog.) E-mail and media relations. Yeah, it works. And I’m sure there are times when reporters prefer getting e-mail answers to questions. But if you’re trying to avoid a real discussion with a reporter, then an e-mail reply seems to me to be the equivalent of a digital no comment. It sure doesn’t demonstrate that you are trying to be responsive or responsible – and forget about the relationship-building part.

Let me know what you think. You can post a comment – or, uh, send me an e-mail.

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3 responses to “Reporters and e-mail. Well, not always.

  1. Rob! Congrats on the blog…I’m ecstatic you decided to start sharing your smarts online. Email is a double-edged sword…in some cases it’s the perfect communication tool and others…it’s the death of you. It all comes back to relationships and paying attention to the PEOPLE you’re communicating with. What is their preference? How have they responded in the past? Technology helps us communicate…until we forget that relationships exist beyond the keyboard.

  2. Hi Rob-

    Enjoy the blog. Had to comment on the KSU email situation (know I’m late). I agree it was a poor decision, although I do not know the details. I’ve only used email for reporters on a few occasions – they were reporters I knew well, they needed a quick answer and I could not get through to them via phone. It was a convenience and worked well, but itr does not replace face-to-face or voice-to-voice.

    The KSU email response has my head scratching. I certainly hope it is not their m.o. when dealing with reporters. The only other reasons I can think of are that pr was under direct orders to email her OR the reporter had misquoted or somehow burned them in the past to the point they don’t trust her and thought email was the best defense.

    Unlike others, I do not believe this is a crisis communications issue. The story does not have legs. This is a reputation management issue that I hope the adminsitration pays attention to and learns from.

  3. Tim,

    Hi. I’m kind of new to this blogging business. I don’t know if people come back to read additional comments after they post one. But in the event you (and others) are looking at this, I wanted to make a few additional points about the Kent State e-mail situation.

    First, Bill Sledzik on his ToughSledding blog has a comprehensive post about this. And the two of us, and others, provided some suggestions that the Kent State administration could consider. That information is available at http://www.toughsledding.wordpress.com.

    Then, I agree with you. This story does not have legs. Outside the university, unless you have a son or daughter attending and paying tuition, it’s unlikely you would be interested. And Ohio state legislators should be interested, but…

    For those inside the university — students, faculty and staff — it’s a different matter. Here we have what I believe is the beginning of a crisis of confidence and credibility facing the administration. I’d argue that President Lefton and others need to address this crisis soon, with both sound decisions and honest, effective communication.

    Then there is the question of Carol Biliczky, the ABJ reporter who wrote the story about the tuition payments. As I mentioned in my original post, I’ve known Carol for more than 20 years. She is an excellent reporter. She is fair, accurate and she listens. If you can’t talk directly to her on a story involving the university, then who can you talk to? I’m like you. I have no idea how the decision was made to respond to her via e-mail. But regardless, that seems to me to be the wrong strategy, particularly since Carol is the primary education reporter for one of the few media outlets in the country that have any ongoing interest in Kent State. (The Akron Beacon Journal, The Plain Dealer, the Record-Courier and the Daily Kent Stater. And shortly before finals week, the Daily Kent Stater printed an editorial criticizing President Lefton’s lack of visibility on campus and his apparent reluctance to talk to Stater reporters.)

    Classes resume Jan. 14. I really hope that this situation improves. But the administration is going to have to work at it. It’s not just going to disappear. I have two degrees from Kent State, have been an alumnus for almost 40 years, and now I teach at the university full time. I’m one of KSU’s biggest fans. But come on folks. We can do better.

    Rob

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