Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Supervise your superior

Obvious! It’s a ‘taboo’ for you as a junior to supervise the work of someone senior to you. But not when they are meeting the media.
One day I accompanied a team of Plan Malawi’s disaster preparedness team to a southern Malawi district where floods had destroyed houses, property and crops and had displaced hundreds of people. Plan was visiting the area to distribute relief items to the floods victims.
My role was very clear. I had to pitch our story to editors at local media houses and I did just that. A team of journalists came along.
The journalists and I had agreed very well on the time they would need Plan’s and other officials for interviews. When the time came, I alerted who ever the media had asked for. I listened to the media interviews as they were being conducted and everything went on well.
However, one experience prompted me to arrive at a resolution I will leave with as long as I remain in charge of Media Relations for any organisation or for any individual.
Before an interview with a Plan official, I left the place to look for another person who the media had also indicated they needed. This is what followed.

I had requested the television crew we went with to share with me the raw footage of the interviews they had captured. For some reason I had missed our story when it was on TV during news. I therefore decided to watch the raw footage on my laptop in my office.
The Plan official was asked a set of questions first in English and the same questions were asked in Chichewa, Malawi’s most widely spoken local language, which almost all electronic media houses in the country also use, alongside English, to broadcast news.
As I watched the raw footage, I noticed that during the Chichewa version of the interview, the spokesperson would, within a sentence, code switch between Chichewa and English as he answered questions from the TV reporter. That went on in that fashion in all the Chichewa questions. That got me thinking: What would I do if I were the editor of the story brought by the reporter and if I had decided to use the story in a news bulletin?
I figured out that if I were the editor I would be confronted with four options to choose from.
First option: I would have to have the English phrases in the Chichewa interview translated into the local language to enable viewers with a limited grasp of English get the message. That is the essence of having Chichewa news bulletins anyway. But that would be expensive on my part as it would require more resources in terms of time and personnel. What with the transcription, translation and the production of voice-overs. Apart from that, I would grapple with the question around the aesthetic implications of a mixture of English and Chichewa phases within an interviewee’s sentence of any chosen clip for the news. I figured out the interview would sound and appear a disjointed package. That is debatable, though.
Second option: I would throw the Chichewa clips that I would have chosen into the bulletin the way they were, without any translation and voice-overs. But the presence of more English phrases in Chichewa sentences would mean viewers with limited levels of English would not get the message by the Plan official. That would defeat the whole purpose of having a Chichewa version of the bulletin.
Third option: I would choose only ‘clean’ Chichewa clips i.e. clips in which the interviewee spoke Chichewa without code-switching between the local language and English. That would make my work easy but the organisation’s opportunity to deliver its key message would potentially be missed in the process. Well, as an editor, I would not care much about that. After all, I would tell myself, rightly so, it is not my job to make an effort to help organisations deliver their key messages to their target audience. I would owe no one any apology for my decision.
Well, if, at this stage, you think this would be the organisation’s Media Relations person’s biggest failure in this assignment I dare say you have not yet figured out what I consider the most painful failure, at-least on this one.
My fourth option as an editor of this Plan Malawi story would be the easiest of all and for which I would also owe no single soul any semblance of an apology: throw the story into the rubbish bin. The story would not get on viewers’ TV screens. If this would not be classified the most frustrating thing for me as a Media Relations practitioner, having spent my organisation’s financial resources to take the TV crew all the way to the interior of the flood hit district, then I have no idea what would be.
So what does all this suggest?
Whenever your organisation’s spokesperson on any issue is giving a media interview, hang around and listen to every single word that they utter. If I were around during the Plan Malawi official’s media interview at the relief item distribution exercise I would instantly advise him to respond to the Chichewa questions exclusively in the local language. I would monitor his every word and sentence so the editor of the news would not be bothered about deciding what to do with the interview as demonstrated above.
My experience with the TV interview taught me one basic Media Relations mantra: Don’t walk away. No matter how well prepared or smart you think your organisation’s spokesperson is, do not stay away when they are giving the media an interview, unless it is practically impossible for you to be physically around.  

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