Dealing with Woodward

As I started with the Norman, OK CVB, one of the first “issues” I faced was our local Bob Woodward. Remember the reporter that broke the Watergate story? Each community has a reporter looking for their Pulitzer! I had mine. She wanted everything and quoted the Open Records Act as easily as her kid’s names and birthdates. Colleagues offered suggestions:

1. Make public notice your meetings and make all of your records available for public review. If reporters want to come to your meetings, welcome them! You can help educate them. The only thing you shouldn’t open are personnel records. “My opinion is that it all should be open and then no one thinks you are hiding anything, which in any good organization you are not.”

2. “We have made it a practice to be as open as possible, and meet monthly with both city council, county commissioners and offer a lot of info to the press…we don’t discuss specific pieces of business in our board meetings, and do not release financial data because of the private membership organization status.”

3. “My best advice is to smile broadly and say, ‘Certainly, we’re an open book!’ – because you are. All of our records, except personnel records, of course, are open to inspection. That applies to email as well.

“If and when they look at sales files or bed tax receipts, just let them know that those are very sensitive records as the hotels consider that information to be proprietary.

“I’ve found that being completely open with reporters is the best way to establish a positive relationship with them. You’ll always have the occasional overzealous Woodward & Bernstein wannabe who will try to create controversy where none exists. The majority of reporters will appreciate your openness and honesty and will also appreciate the sensitivity of proprietary information. The more you dig in your heels or seem to be reluctant to provide information, the more certain they’ll be that the next ‘Watergate’ story is lurking just behind your file cabinet drawer.”

4. “Take time out to knock out talking points for anything you can reasonably expect to end up in the paper. Some of those things are pretty innocuous – e.g.: football economic impact; impact of the economic downturn on the tourism industry; crimes committed in or around hotels, etc. Others take more time and consideration but you’ll know them when they pop up.”

5. “Get to know your local newspaper editors and television news folks – reporters and assignment editors. Educate them about what you do. Sit down with the Editor and attempt to explain that the reporter’s presence will have a negative impact on the community. If Board Members are not allowed to express opinions without it being reported in the paper, some cool ideas may never get off the ground…hurting the destination. One would hope the Editor wouldn’t want to hurt the community. This is a long shot…but possibly worth a try if you have any kind of a relation with him/her.”

Most agreed that after a while, most reporters “get a clue that there isn’t a story and stop wasting their time.”

(Originally posted February 2009)

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