I was browsing some topics on this forum, and came across one about how to handle negative newspaper editorials.
I thought, "Wow! A topic I am uniquely qualified to comment on on this forum!"
Okay, okay, I know it was presented as a question a year ago, but it's ALWAYS a relevant topic.
I started writing my response, but it became a HUGE response... so I decided that I would just make it a blog.
Now, to explain why I feel uniquely qualified to comment on the topic: I am the wife and mother of firefighters/EMTs. I am the city's emergency management director.
BUT... (and this is the really big one) for 20 years, I have been a newspaper journalist, the last 10 years as an editor and publisher.
I am assuming everyone knows that the officers need to be the ones who decide if to respond and what that response will be. Sometimes, it might even require the department's attorney (or municipality's attorney) to review possible legal issues in a response from the department.
I once saw a fire department sued for libel because a firefighter responded to a letter written by a rejected applicant by saying the letter "proves the guy has serious problems that kept him from making the cut."
Yes, it can be THAT tricky. Which is why it should be left to the officers and admins.
Having said that, the first thing that is important to distinguish is whether it's an editorial written by the newspaper staff/editorial board... OR, if it's a Letter to the Editor, written by a member of the public.
They are two distinctly different things and the distinction is an important one to make because it determines how to procede.
A letter written by a member of the public is best left unanswered.
Every response someone gives, especially from the department, creates an obligation on the part of the newspaper to let the original author respond to YOUR response. It could drag out for weeks, giving more and more space to the original author's complaints.
Now, if the letter contains blatant misinformation, just call the editorial page editor and, with as much good humor as you can muster, laugh about the errors and ask them to make a clarification. "Clarification" is a much less confrontational word than "retraction" and most editors will be happy to clear matters up to keep their paper's integrity intact.
Also keep in mind that readers don't view authors of Letters To The Editor as authorities or experts. A letter that appears today is old news by tomorrow. If it's just a written rant, let it go. People see it as a rant and that's as far as it goes.
On the other hand, if it's an editorial that represents the view of the paper or editorial board, then you are dealing with a position that the papers' editorial staff has taken in response to something that is a hot topic in the public view: current budget talks, collective bargaining, something that happened at a city council meeting, or even a recent fire response.
If that's the case, then it DEFINITELY needs to be left to the officers to respond. The paper's editorial board/editor has taken a position for a reason, and believe the editorial is bullet-proof, or they wouldn't have written it. Either they have public support on their side, or they have facts.
Either way, they will be prepared to defend their editorial to the end. They won't talk to or listen to anyone short of the top department officers.
Officers can ask for, and should get, "equal time" to respond. That response should be written and submitted only after the meeting with the editors. They may have information or opinions that need to be considered or addressed in your response.
In the end, the officers will need to decide if it's a hill worth dying over. Having a good working relationship with the media should be a goal for every department.
Okay, I think that covers it...
any questions?

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Comment by Andy Turnham on October 2, 2011 at 6:46pm

Excellent article, clear and concise.  This sort of information should be given to every serving firefighter, and reinforced regularly.

When I was working the rule was, Yellow hat (firefighter and Lieutenant) ALWAYS refers the press to a White hat (Officer) and a White hat ALWAYS refers them on to the Press Officer.  No one ever comments directly to the press by any means about anything concerning the Dept..

Direct complaints from the public were always referred to the most Senior Officer present, indirect complaints were dealt with by the Public Relations Dept..

I'd recommend even the smallest Volunteer Department appoint a Press Officer, train her/him up and refer the Press to that person in every case.

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