MPA conference presents ‘Behind the Microphone’

Kent County Sheriff Lawrence Stelma, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Director of Corporate Affairs Helen Stojic, Fennville High School basketball coach Ryan Klinger and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell talked about what it’s like to “deal with the media” and the Jan. 27 Michigan Press Association conference in Grand Rapids. It was billed as a way to get “pointers from a perspective that can yield better stories for newspaper readers.” It was moderated by Ron Dzwonkowski of The Detroit Free Press.

The face and the voice of City Hall is interpreted for its citizens through print and electronic media, said Heartwell.

Stelma: Command staff or officers authorized to speak if media liaison is available. Primarily, though, media requests come to him. He attended FBI Academy and was trained in how to deal with the media. “We always tell people. ‘We work for you.’” “We use the media as much to assist us get the work done … as they need us to do the job you must do.”

Stojic: BCBS cares what’s reported about the business. “We want people to know we do care.”

“When I get calls … I direct them to the right person to help them out,” she said.

Klinger asked how many dealings with media he had before the tragic death of basketball player Wes Leonard thrust the school district in the media. The coach said he heard from people around the world about it. Stories were written from around the world. Klinger said he told players to be honest and show your emotion” when responding to press questions about death of teammate. Klinger: “For me it was about representing Wes Leonard and his family … To me it wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do, but something I felt we had to do.”

Stojic said she runs into people who say they wouldn’t want her job because she has to “deal with the media.” But she thinks it’s important to be proactive and keep reporters informed. She was asked if it’s her job to make BCBS look good. She said it’s her job to tell the company’s story and there’s a lot of misinformation out there, like on the Internet, that they have to counter.

Stelma asked if he always tells the truth. He said he does, but often media has a tip or information and they know he knows, but for some reason the sheriff can’t reveal the information at that time. “I just tell them I can’t devuldge the information at this time.

“I can tell them, but they know. … It’s the balancing of what information is important to the community for safety reasons.

“There’s a delicate balance.”

Mayor Heartwell asked if he always tells the truth. He was bound one time by a nondisclosure agreement to not talk about a project in the city and he said he would never do that again because he needs to work in public’s best interest as a public servant. He often says he can’t comment, and would not lie.

Heartwell said he often gets his first knowledge of an incident from the media, rather than from his own police force because they’re busy on the case. When asked for comment, he doesn’t like to admit or tell the media this is the first he is hearing about an incident in the city, but he understands why he’s placed in that position.

Stelma said he often gets caught up in the media’s frenzy to get the story out first. “I actually get involved in the tension of the media (battling for the story).” He has a media line and encourages reporters to call that line, which is answered regularly. He does not share his cell number, but he does share email address.

Stojic asked how much authority does she have to speak for BCBS or does she have to ask her boss at some point. She said she has a lot of leeway, but she doesn’t like “playing a doctor on television.” She’ll help the reporter get an expert source when needed, such as a doctor or nurse. “I don’t know everything off the top of my head.”

Stojic said an employees sometimes circle a story in print and tell her how the reporter got it wrong. She says she always tries to get it right and it’s rare her boss or an employee points to anything she got wrong.

Klinger asked about his dealings with reporters and were they all the same. Most, Klinger said, were respectful, even though he could sense they were competitive for the story. “For me, it was about if I could get the message across about the player we lost, the family, how great our community was, that was special for me, whether I had to do it five times or a hundred times. I never said no to them because I didn’t want to turn away that opportunity.”

Stelma doesn’t distinguish between media and citizens in covering story pr shooting video or photos.

Sheriff Stelma doesn’t go off the record with reporters because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Stojic says she has gone off the record to give background on a topic to a reporter when doesn’t want to give official comment just yet. “We want to make sure the information is correct,” she said.

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