Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Government Communicators: Send Outreach into Orbit

Award-winning video producer Ann Ramsey contributed today's post. She is a senior producer at the US Department of Health & Human Services in Washington, DC.

Although traditionally a favorite of corporate communicators, the Satellite Media Tour (SMT) should be part of every government communicator's toolkit. 

SMTs make efficient use of time-starved spokespeople who want to reach multiple media markets. This winter, for example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services held weekly SMTs throughout the Health Insurance Marketplace Open Enrollment period. The benefit? Without leaving Washington, busy officials reached broadcast journalists all over the country with continuing updates about healthcare enrollment.

Not every government communicator knows the ins and outs of the SMT, so here’s a rundown. While some agencies use PR firms for their SMTs, I will assume your agency has its own broadcast studio, or at least access to one. 

What is an SMT? An SMT is a series of video interviews featuring a spokesperson responding in front of a camera to the audio of each remote interviewer’s questions. The broadcaster remotely receives the sound and picture of the spokesperson, usually via satellite, for play-out in a live news program, or as a recorded media file for editing into a package for later broadcast. SMTs generally take one to four hours of the spokesperson’s time, and interviews are typically scheduled in 10-minute windows. If radio broadcasters are included, the interview series is referred to as an SMT/RMT.

Advantages. An SMT is an opportunity to tap broadcasters in order to introduce, or respond to, a newsworthy or time-sensitive topic. It allows for targeting of media markets, for direct interaction between the spokesperson and reporters, and for the opportunity to tailor the desired message to each market.

Must-haves. At minimum, you need an available spokesperson; a satellite-capable broadcast studio (look up: is there a dish on your building’s roof?); the manpower to pitch to the networks; and a modest budget to rent a block of satellite time.

Prep. First, send out a pitch notification (media alert) that includes your desired topic or announcement, the planned date of the SMT, the spokesperson’s bio, and any pertinent facts that can be used to leverage an interview. Target your top media markets, stations and networks, and work up a schedule of time-slots to fill. Most SMTs are aimed at some combination of TV news shows (morning, noon, evening) and/or radio drive-time shows. Contact local and network news divisions to pitch your SMT. Once your agency’s broadcast studio has a block of satellite-time arranged, notify all participating stations of the satellite coordinates and signal format details.

Pitching tips. Local TV/radio news divisions are busy places. Nonetheless, a government agency can appeal to them by offering the twin advantages of authority and topicality. That a national authority, such as the Secretary of a cabinet-level department, is available to speak directly to a reporter about a hot topic is attractive to a network, particularly a small, local affiliate. Furthermore, offering a local angle can be helpful, if you can tailor your statistics and examples to each media market. Once a news producer is interested in the interview, the concept and timing normally need to be cleared with a news director at the station. That’s why each time-slot may take a couple of phone calls or emails to confirm.

Day-of. Your agency’s broadcast studio will likely handle booking and supervision of the makeup artist, production crew and satellite link-up, as well as delivery of any non-live interviews to the network producers. You will be assigned a studio SMT producer and floor director to oversee the production. You will need to provide the studio talking points to be loaded into the teleprompter, so your spokesperson can refer to them during each interview. It’s smart to confirm that the studio team has all the information for each interview, including time-slot, the station’s network control room telephone number, producer name and number, interviewer name and number, IFB (
“Interruptible Feed Back”) number (used by the studio to dial into each station), backup/engineer number, and delivery method (live or taped).

On-air tips. As a communications professional, you should coach and assist your spokesperson. Be aware that on-air time with the reporter will be short; perhaps just a few minutes. Often the final story is only 90 seconds long. So reporters need your spokesperson to make between one and three points concisely. You should be on site with the spokesperson during the SMT, and coordinate with the studio’s SMT producer and floor director. Let your spokesperson know the first name of each reporter (the reporter will be speaking directly into your spokesperson’s headset). For each interview, the IFB number for the remote station is phoned by the studio’s audio engineer to create a direct audio link between the interviewer and the spokesperson. If needed, this link can be interrupted by the studio SMT producer or floor director, in order to keep the spokesperson informed. (Think of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show listening to a fake mic in his ear and saying, “Wait… I’m being told…”). If any linkup is lost, or any station has to cancel or delay, the studio SMT producer will make on-the-fly changes to maximize the scheduled line-up.

Afterwards. Your agency broadcast studio will deliver any non-live media to stations that have requested taped versions for editing or later play-out. As desired, you may want to follow up with broadcasters for feedback and to confirm that post-delivery airing took place. You can also get a tape of your spokesperson’s on-air answers from your studio, for media training purposes or to keep as an archival record.

Trends. Downsizing in broadcast is having an impact. Today you may find the network news producer and interviewer are one and the same person. If something urgent takes place, the floor director or studio producer must use the IFB to reach the interviewer. Another new wrinkle is that the interviewer may want to do the interview remotely, and so, rather than dialing into a station’s IFB number, the studio dials directly to the interviewer’s own mobile phone. It can be tricky! Social media is also having an impact. You can research the Twitter handle of a given broadcast station, in order to follow and interact on social media before and during a given live interview. And it's now possible to create so-called “air-checks,” permanent internet links to selected news show segments that make them available in play-back to stakeholders after the fact.
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