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Four simple media lessons for Onchan MHKs

Rob Callister MHK - Missing in action?

Rob Callister MHK – Missing in action?

Well, another week another mishap with the press. It’s pretty much the vogue at the moment for politicians to blame the media for their own mistakes, and there’s a pretty good example of that on Facebook.
Onchan MHK Rob Callister, just recovered from the Bushy’s fiasco, plonks down a marker on social media. His beef? Not commenting on a story.

It’s easy for politicians to get upset when the media reports they haven’t answered a question. And it’s very easy for them to post on social media.
But should they?
Mr Callister posted his views on Facebook after a story about an important cycle race on the Island being too expensive for some teams. Bear in mind, this is the MHK in the Department of Economic Development responsible for tourism.
As you’d expect the media followed it up – after all, here’s a politician asking if there’s the possibility businesses in the sector he oversees are (in effect) price gouging.
But he didn’t respond to requests for an interview, and he was called out for it. When he read the story…

History repeating itself?

The whole thing brings to mind a very similar affair involving his predecessor in Onchan – David Quirk.
Manx Radio called him out for not being interviewed about the regulation of Manx Gas. It took him weeks to do an interview about it, by which time the story became “David Quirk comes out of hiding” instead of something (anything!) more positive.
But he had more sense than to come out guns blazing on social media over it, even though there’s a good argument that was a large part of why he eventually lost the election to Mr Callister.
Nobody likes a politician who looks like they’re dodging questions. And to be fair to Mr Callister, he certainly didn’t dodge the whole “government sues Bushy’s over TT trademark” story, even if his department came out of that with something of a bloody nose.

Mistakes were made, lessons are being learned…

So why is posting about it on Facebook such a bad idea? Surely he’s entitled to say the media’s wrong if that’s how he feels?
Of course he is.
However, reporters don’t write “declined to respond” for no reason. You have to be very sure of your ground. It takes repeated interview offers which are either ignored or declined before you can justify such a line in a story.
And if you’re constantly too busy to answer questions the media ask on behalf of the public, sooner or later you have to expect that fact to come out.
So, lesson number one…

Respond to interview requests

Journalists are under a lot of pressure to produce a story. When a news editor asks “where’s that piece?” you’d better have a good answer. Deadlines are always looming – it’s particularly true on radio, where they arrive every hour on the hour for news bulletins.
If you’re contacted by a journalist, don’t put them off. It will reflect badly, and you won’t escape their attention. They’ll simply get fed up of chasing you and write that you declined to respond.
Even if you say “I’m very busy but can spare two minutes”, they’ll take it. Half an interview is better than none, as a grizzled old boss once told me.
How long can it take to repeat what you’ve already said in a Facebook post?
Lesson number two…

Being too busy for the media means being too busy for Facebook

An interview would probably have taken less time than to write that Facebook post.
Or this one.

Or certainly this one.

“I’ve been very busy” only really works if you haven’t spent more time posting on Facebook than it would have taken to do the interview. No, you’re not beholden to the press – but appearing to think you’re above such earthly concerns won’t generate much sympathy.
It would have been quicker to ring up the moment that story appeared, offer to do a short interview and defuse the whole thing. That line of the story would have been removed: there’s your response, right there. A painless, easy solution.
Which leads on to lesson number three…

Don’t deliberately misinterpret coverage

To compound those two errors, Mr Callister decided to complain about the coverage on Facebook. In doing so, he altered the meaning of the article to suit an indignant “I”m-a-poor-victim-of-the-terrible-media” narrative.
He writes “I have never refused to answer a question”. All very well, except that’s not what the article said. It said “declined to respond”, a very different phrase with a very different meaning. If the journalist had meant he’d refused to answer questions, they would have written exactly that.
And to cap it all, here we are days later and where’s the interview? “I’m not refusing to answer questions but even after complaining about the coverage, I haven’t answered questions” is a bad look for a member of parliament.
Let’s wrap it up with lesson number four…

What goes around comes around, especially in journalism

Let me tell you, publicly complaining about the terrible media and the things you imagine they’ve said about you is not a great way for a politician to ensure future coverage is favourable.
And it won’t just be that one outlet in particular that may well be more hostile in future. Other reporters could well be a lot harder in future about their coverage. It encourages journalists to push him, because who knows what he’ll blurt out on social media in future? And with the public screaming about how “easy” reporters are on politicians, a row about “unfair” coverage only benefits news organisations looking to increase their audience.
Now he’ll have to live with a far more adversarial press. And if comparisons with David Quirk start here, there’s a long road ahead to the next general election. All a journalist has to do is wait – sooner or later any politician who takes a pop at the media regrets it.
Especially if it was so avoidable and unnecessary.
If you’re in the political arena (local or national) and would like to know more about the Chips Cheese Gravy Media political media training course – the only one of its type on the Isle of Man – you can find out more here!
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