News Journalism: Dealing with Councillors27 July 2022
When you have to start finding stories in your patches you will often have to try and get a comment from a councillor. In order to publish the story, you must have attempted to get a comment from the council as otherwise you have not given them the right to respond, a key element of the Ipso code.
This may seem simple, but it was often the most irritating and frustrating part of production days.
To help guide you through the experience I have compiled a few tips that I wish I knew at the beginning of the year.
- Only contact specific councillors if it is to introduce yourself at the beginning of the year. It is a good idea to create a relationship with them to enable you to by-pass the press office. In my patch the councillors never replied to my emails. The route they want you to take is to contact the Press Office first asking for a comment and they will put you through to the correct councillor if they think you need to be. Spoiler – they very rarely do, you will most likely get a comment from the press officer.
- If you do not get a reply from your patch councillors, it is a good idea to go to one of their scheduled constituency meetings. This means that you can meet them in person and they will have a face to the name next time you email them. It also allows you to develop a more personal connection with them, meaning they may even tip you off to future stories.
- When dealing with the press office, understand that their job is to ensure that the council are not badly presented in media – so expect them to be spikey if you are asking for a comment on a complaint. I was far too sensitive to their passive aggressiveness at the beginning and I wish I had understood that it wasn’t personal, although sometimes it felt like it.
- When phrasing your email to the press officers, always check that you are very specific about what you are asking for. If you are vague there will be a back and forth which irritates the press officers and makes them much less helpful.
- Ethical considerations – often you will get a resident who complains about something the council have done, seems simple enough to get a comment in response. However sometimes when these complaints are specific to an individual, the council press officer want the name and reference number of the complainant in order to check their system. This is a moral and ethical problem as you would be giving away the identity of your source, and if you do not ask their permission to do so, you may be doing more harm than good. The best course of action is to ask the complainant for their permission to tell the council in order to get a comment, and if they refuse then you should not give their identity away.
- Always be polite. These press officers are the people you are going to have to deal with all year, and if you get a job in Cardiff afterwards. It always pays to be nice, even when you are getting frustrated.
- Remember, if they refuse to comment, you can write that to demonstrate you gave them the right to respond.
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