CNN vs. the Breathless Bureaucrat

This edition of Media’s Masters and Disasters features a remarkable video clip and a simple two-part lesson:

1) If you work for a government agency, don’t stonewall the media.
2) If you work for a government agency and you ignore rule #1, be ready for the consequences.

The easiest way to appreciate the value of this formula is to watch the cringe-worthy video of California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana S. Dooley trying to dodge CNN’s Drew Griffin over allegations that the state failed to crack down on fraudulent drug rehabilitation clinics. Clearly, Ms. Dooley is in serious need of media training.

The pertinent sequence begins at 2:40, but start from the beginning for proper context.

Cut to the chase

The clip begins with a scene that has become a cliche on TV news these days: reporter ambushes subject, subject refuses to talk and instead tries to escape. But this time the scene goes on for several excruciating minutes, with Dooley trying desperately to evade Griffin. She tries the restroom (locked!), and then the elevator (camera crews can get in elevators too!). And at one point, she tries something totally unexpected: an impromptu interview. Tragically, it is much too late.

A short-winded story

Breathless from the pursuit (or maybe nerves?), Dooley can’t even finish her thoughts without gasping for air. Ironically, she actually begins with a great media statement: “The State of California takes fraud very seriously, and there are many investigations that are underway.”

Too bad this didn’t come out earlier in an official statement, or as part of a scheduled, consensual interview. Because under these chaotic circumstances, Griffin had follow-up questions for which Dooley was obviously unprepared.

She should have issued her brief statement the moment Griffin confronted her outside, and then either (a) promised Griffin that she, or somebody else, would address his questions under more civilized circumstances, or (b) informed him that it is the department’s policy not to comment on any ongoing investigation. And then, she should have calmly walked to her office without ever again acknowledging the reporter (once she got to any secured area of the building or office, the camera crew would be unable to follow her).

The more you ignore them, the closer they get

Some interview requests need to be declined. When you represent a public agency, you should choose those occasions very carefully. Stonewall a journalist unnecessarily or without explanation, and you may find yourself doing an interview against your will. (By the way, note the way Griffin held his stick mic: subtly clutched alongside his notes so as not to emphasize the fact that Dooley’s words were all on the record.)

Once you lose control of an interview, as Dooley did, you lose control of your story. Running away, calling for security, and desperately grasping at locked doorknobs only make that story bigger, better, and a case study in how to be a Media Disaster.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.