Poor Melanie Streeper.
Until last week her modest notoriety went not much further than the walls of St. Louis City Hall. But now the aide to the city’s comptroller has earned days of online ridicule for a truly memorable display of media relations bungling.
If you have not seen the offending video, it can be found here:
Adding irony to insult, her official title is “Public Information Officer”.
Ms. Streeper’s mistakes were both numerous and obvious:
1/ Refusing a reporter’s requests to interview her boss, Darlene Green, about the cost of a car.
Any public official should be ready to answer legitimate questions about personal use of public money, particularly when the person in question is the comptroller, St. Louis’s “Chief Fiscal Officer”, self-described on her website as a person who “runs on a platform of honesty and integrity.”
Dodging interviews begs an ambush. Given that Ms. Green is not a billionaire who could hide out on a private island, chances were excellent that a reporter would buttonhole her in a hallway.
2/ Attempting to block the reporter’s questions and the view of the cameraman.
How could any media relations person not understand why this is wrong? It is inevitable that it will make you the story, make your boss look guiltier and give a reporter some dandy video that he will gleefully and rightfully milk.
3/ This is the clincher: despite having been ambushed, Ms. Green was answering the reporter’s questions.
But her own “Public Information Officer” drowned out her answers.
It was a good day for the reporter—not so much for the comptroller and her media advisor.
As obnoxious as Melanie Streeper seemed in the video, I must say that I now feel a bit sorry for her. Social media commentators have abundantly punished her with a tsunami of abuse.
Her blunders were evident, but there are still lessons to be learned.
Anyone who faces a critical story in the news media should think long and hard before refusing to submit to an interview. It is all the more true for someone holding public office.
Accountability is a hot buzzword in journalism circles now, particularly among news consultants. But it is nothing new. It really amounts to old-fashioned, hard-nosed reporting: if someone has done something questionable, they need to answer for it. A good reporter will push hard and find a way to get in the face of the official.
A sage media advisor will tell her boss that she needs to tell her side of the story, and to arrange a proper and dignified setting to tell it—certainly not in a hurried, walking, ambush interrogation that radiates culpability and arrogance.
Perhaps there is a legitimate answer to the criticism. Or perhaps the answer is that the boss screwed up and needs to say sorry and make amends.
Either way the media trainer’s job is to offer guidance in how to answer tough questions, not to put words in the subject’s mouth, not to “spin”, but to assist in effectively telling the truth.
Having done thousands of interviews in my reporting days, everyone from prime ministers to shantytown dwellers, I use my practice sessions to give clients a realistic experience of answering a relentless and informed journalist, someone who will drill down on the essential points in search of an honest answer. Crucially, I never fire off ridiculously abusive questions that are easily dismissed.
It is the smart interviewers who should be feared, not the goofballs who shout insults.
And if necessary, we go over the art of the sincere apology.