Cautionary lesson

This post comes to us via the ARRL and was been sent to all the volunteer public information officers, emergency coordinators, district emergency coordinators and affiliated club presidents listed with the ARRL.

Written by Nick White, NV9V, District 3 Emergency Coordinator, ARRL Kentucky Section PIO, the post discusses the weekend media story about amateur radio that appeared in the New York Times. Nick talks about the positive news story which had the potential of creating a negative impression about ham radio.

The following information pertains to the situation in the U.S. but good media relations information can be found here. (Also, in Canada, the Radio Amateurs of Canada site has lots of information that is useful in working with the media.)

I (VE3HG) am also available to you as a resource. (I was a vice-president of a national public relations agency.)  We amateurs in Canada are not letting the media know enough about us and the great service work being done by our clubs, associations and ARES groups among others. It’s important to the future of amateur radio that we start doing a better job of getting the word out about amateur radio in Canada. If you need help, send me an email to: ve3hg at rac.ca and I’ll do my best to help.

Here’s what Nick, NV9V, had to say (with slight editing):

We were beneficiaries of some good publicity about the success of Owensboro recruiting new amateur radio operators, which had a peculiar twist that diminished the story.   Various versions of the article were picked up in regional and national print media such as Henderson, KY and the New York Times.  Attached is link to both versions.
NYT:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/us/02kentucky.html

Henderson:  http://www.kentucky.com/181/story/882239.html

At issue is the direct quote in the original article and reprinted in the Times describing amateur radio, saying, [amateur radio] was “a dying thing”.   

Overall, the article was positive and the amateur radio operators interviewed did a good job.  Interestingly, the Henderson paper redacted part of the original quote, illustrating how the media can selectively quote their sources.  In this instance it was a benefit, but clearly, someone opposed to amateur radio could have focused on “dying” to support a negative point of view.

Realistically, most of the licensed radio operators in Kentucky’s 120 counties have probably said something similar in casual conversation.  However, we all need to remember that speaking to the press or issuing written statements about amateur radio events is more than casual talk and can have untended consequences.  While, we enjoy the hobby and appreciate what volunteer licensed operators can contribute in the event of a communications emergency, not everyone agrees and they can use our own words against us.  Moreover, civil authorities want to know that what the amateur radio service provides isn’t “old”, “obsolete”, and “dying”, but “dependable”, “proven”, essential”, and “reliable”.

While some may say this is much ado about nothing, the ARRL spends a lot of effort to build the image of amateur radio of which we are the major beneficiaries.  That effort extends to our state section manager (SM), section emergency coordinator (SEC), and many DEC’s, EC’s as well as local amateur radio clubs.  As amateur radio operators, club affiliates, ARRL officials, we all have a material influence on how amateur radio is viewed by the public and government alike.

Recognizing this, I think it is all our best interest to formalize Amateur Radio PR activity for ARES and ARRL affiliated clubs in Kentucky when ever possible.  By formalize, I suggest the following:

1. Establish a policy to review press releases and interviews with county Public Information Officers (PIO’s) early, before releasing the information to the media.   In the case of interviews, use PIO’s wherever possible.  But if that position is vacant, EC’s should advise their DEC and discuss, perhaps role play, the interview before hand.  That isn’t to restrict amateur’s access to media, but help them prepare for it.  Moreover, the process doesn’t diminish ones skills, but enhances it.  I know of no PR professional that is intentional interviewed without prior preparation.

2. If you are concerned about the interview, ask for assistance.  As the Kentucky Section PIC, I am available daily and can be reached by email at nv9v@arrl.net.   In addition, ARRL Public Relations Manager Allen Pitts, W1AGP is available to provide PR assistance by email apitts@arrl.org.

3. The ARRL provide an abundance of material to guide and assist local PR efforts.  For instance, see the link http://www.arrl.org/pio/prtools.html for a comprehensive guide to working with the media.  In addition, the ARRL recently introduced PR-101 (http://www.arrl.org/news/stories/2009/05/15/10817/?nc=1 ), a course intended to give hams quick instruction in public relations activities.   According to ARRL’s count, about 3 in 4 ARRL PIO’s describe their training in public relations as none, little, and some.  This course was designed to fill in the gaps.

4. Lastly, bear in mind that the key to good public relations doesn’t depend on who writes the release or gives the interview, but getting the right message out to producers that will air it and reporters that will write about it.  Sometimes that means local cub presidents or club PIO’s should be the center of attention, while at other times it may be best for the Section Manager, Public Information Coordinator, DEC or EC to represent amateur radio’s interests.  In the end, it’s about telling Amateur Radio’s story, simply and consistently.

5. In the near future, we will draft some talking points that are particularly relevant to Kentucky amateur radio issues and activities.

I know that “one” goal of the ARRL is to build Amateur Radio’s image in the minds of citizens, non-government organizations, local, state, federal government decision makers alike as a group of technically capable, conscientious, radio operators that are proficient in the use of modern modes of communications, not only, for their own personal use, but equally so in the event of a communications emergency.  That’s my interpretation, anyway.  So, lets try to make that the underlying message when get an opportunity to “Meet the Press”.  If I can help, please call. 

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