Technical Articles

International Journal of Government Auditing – January 2009

Working with the Media to Maximize the Impact of Your Audit Work

Editor's Note:
This article is adapted from a talk given at the 11th AFROSAI Assembly in South Africa.

If your audit office does very thorough work but your Public Accounts Committee or other committees to whom you report do not pay attention or hold hearings on your audits, you have a problem. Parliamentarians are very busy people who don't have much time to read printed reports. However, parliamentarians around the world tend to be media junkies, particularly if media items have something to do with their constituencies. SAIs need to recognize the reality that audit reports may not be read thoroughly or completely and find a way for their parliamentary stakeholders to become aware of the good work of the SAI. One way to do this is by getting the media to carry your message for them. SAIs can become partners with the media without compromising their independence. In addition, the media is a key channel to keep citizens informed of the SAI's role in and contribution to strengthening your country's well being. A properly informed audience will create public pressure on elected representatives, which in turn will lead to greater executive accountability and, ultimately, to greater transparency and better management of public funds.

With some planning, you can ensure that your SAI is consistently well positioned and well represented in the media. You can create a well-informed media that can report accurately on audit matters and play a role as the eyes and ears of the public regarding public finances. They will readily raise awareness on the importance of the SAI's role in ensuring public accountability. They will develop interest in the work and efforts of audit offices among the general public and relevant professional public and private institutions. That will enable tax-paying citizens to play appropriate roles to ensure greater accountability of public expenditure through the elected representatives.

To accomplish these purposes, you want to ensure that your audit findings are transmitted to the media in a way that minimizes the risk of them being open to different interpretations. Your audit findings play an important role in promoting accountability, transparency, and good governance in government operations. However, this contribution only becomes truly effective when the audit message is communicated without modification and alteration.

In order to avoid ambiguity or misrepresentation, auditors and spokespersons should be aware of and acquainted with media requirements and develop technical skills in dealing with the media. The following sections describe several key skills for dealing effectively with the media.

Understand What Is Newsworthy

An SAI's work will attract interest if it is newsworthy. However, the news organization's perception of what is newsworthy, not the auditor's, will determine coverage. To be newsworthy, audit work must meet some of the following criteria:

  • Significant Issues: The more people, resources, consequences, damages, or losses involved, the more significant the issue, and the more significant the issue, the bigger the news.
  • Unusual, Unexpected, Contradictory Events: An event that is unexpected or that contradicts what has been claimed publicly is news.
  • Information You Need to Be Aware Of: This includes what readers/listeners/viewers must know about an individual or organization to cast a vote, judge performance of a government, purchase a product, or make up their minds.
  • Information You Would Like to Know: This includes information of interest due to celebrity status, public profile, personal impact, gossip, or personal insights.
  • Information with Impact: This information shows how an event, issue, or report affects pocketbooks, taxes, and the performance of government or other organizations.

Develop Principles for Media Relations

It is essential to build effective media relations so that the media pay attention to you and let you get your audit messages out clearly. To build effective media relations, an SAI needs to understand the following principles for good media relations.

  • Be accessible: Designate spokespersons for the SAI who are knowledgeable and trained to speak on topics within their area of responsibility.
  • Be prompt: Always return a journalist's phone calls promptly.
  • Be honest: Always tell the truth.
  • Know what you are talking about: It is important that you be knowledgeable about your subject and keep up to date with audit findings and the latest reports. If you don't, journalists will stop coming to you.
  • Be helpful: Be a good source before you become a good interviewee.
  • Be reliable: When you make a commitment, follow through.

Understand the Culture of the Media Community

Auditors usually do not have training in dealing with the media. Nor do they understand the culture of the media, have an appreciation of the difficulties of their jobs, or speak the same language. So auditors who speak of the behalf of their SAIs need to understand the characteristics of the media community.

First of all, in most countries, the media cover the public and private sectors and are competitive. Because they cover a wide spectrum of technologies, interests, and backgrounds, they do not represent a single viewpoint. They are under constant pressure to get a good story, provide instant analysis, and meet tight deadlines. In their routine activities, there are laws and professional codes of ethics that journalists must respect.

Second, most media have what is called a narrow "news hole"-that is, the amount of time or space devoted to news and editorials. Television has particularly narrow news holes. If it is a busy news day, your story might be given short shrift or ignored. Therefore, it is important to time the delivery of your news.

Third, journalists now have instant access to an immense amount of information online. Previous media stories about the SAI are accessible online. Journalists should be able to get their background information from your Web site, if you have one. Once audit reports are tabled, they need to be on the Web site as soon as possible.

Fourth, pivate sector media outlets are market-driven to build ratings and increase market share. The resulting pressure is reflected in the assignments, resources, and coverage of popular issues. As most media outlets do not assign reporters to the parliamentary beat, coverage of government affairs can be sporadic.

Fifth, in some countries, governments control electronic media and some leading print media. In such cases, media offer "what the government wants you to know," and negative information about the government may be suppressed. Private sector media, as a result, can improve the transparency of government. They can freely quote auditors general reports or news conference comments.

Sixth, the media's power emanates from its ability to influence the agenda for policy makers and politicians. Since most politicians are news sensitive, the media are an important part of their daily lives and mindsets. Those who know how to effectively access the media and communicate effectively share in that power.

Finally, the media seek profits. Private sector media journalists are being asked to do more with less, which means reduced resources and increased expectations for more stories with faster turnaround. Costs are under strict control in both the public and private sector media.

Understand Different Types of Journalists

If you wish to succeed with the media, you should also understand the nature of journalists. SAI spokespersons and commentators need to understand a reporter's background, approach, and attitudes to be better prepared for his or her line of questioning. Journalists can be grouped into several categories.

  • Sensationalists: These journalists focus on embarrassing personal or emotional issues, like to create conflict, and may exaggerate the story to build audience.
  • Ideologists: These journalists are driven by a personal, political, or social agenda and sometimes shape a story to fit that agenda. They tend to make issues black and white.
  • The Well-informed: These journalists rely heavily on knowledgeable sources developed over a long time on a specific beat. They take pride in knowledge, are respected by colleagues, and are committed to getting the real story. They can become valuable friends of your SAI.
  • Followers of the Pack: These journalists allow others to define the story of the day but don't want to be seen as having missed the story. They can do quick and easy stories.
  • Columnists or Commentators: These journalists are usually paid for opinions, which are often controversial. They often aim for the story behind the story and like to feed on access and reflect grass roots.
  • Community Journalists: They usually work for small town newspaper and radio outlets. They are concerned about their community, sometimes at the expense of the story, and are usually less demanding and less critical.

Develop a Media Policy and Strategy

If your SAI doesn't already have a media policy, you should develop one. A media policy sets out the fundamental principles and procedures for dealing with the media. It clarifies how media relations should be conducted. In this respect, it includes a statement about the importance of media coverage for the SAI and a philosophy for SAI media relations. That philosophy should include providing quick responses, being organized and efficient, providing both proactive and reactive media coverage, and being honest and forthright, even when the news is bad or embarrassing. The policy should also define responsibility for media communications, including the roles and responsibilities for the SAI's Public Relations Office.

The policy should also describe subjects that are off limits, such as criticism of government policies or individual persons, and provide assurances for those who follow the media policy in good faith. It should outline procedures and suggested time frame for handling media meetings, calls, and visits; necessary media tools and appropriate sign-offs for their approval; and designated spokespersons or subject specialists.

After creating a media policy, the next step is to develop a coherent media strategy and the ability to anticipate, not merely react to, changing events in the media community. A media strategy is a means to achieve specific public relations goals through an organized media campaign. Its purpose is to support the SAI's overall mission statement, ensure that media relations are not an issue of concern, and allow the SAI to respond to and generate media coverage as desired.

A media strategy should

  • focus on an issue or set of issues;
  • define the key stakeholders and identify their needs, concerns, and issues;
  • articulate key messages from audit findings and recommendations;
  • outline a program to inform and initiate action;
  • define specific program outcomes;
  • identify its relationship to other communications initiatives; and
  • describe how it can be objectively evaluated.

Getting Your Message to the Media

There are a number of important steps in getting your message to the media.

First, you need to know your media. Begin by collecting basic information on who's who in the media-the media outlets, reporters and editors, issues/topics, and contact database. Second, develop ideas about your message. Capture the essence of the audit issues that you think are worthwhile. Simplify the audit issues so that an average citizen can see they are relevant. Use plain language, not "auditese" or "accountingese" to describe your issues.

Third, maintain the flow of information by having the auditor general or other spokespersons appear on talk shows or by providing background briefings for selected reporters, usually in conjunction with a major announcement or event. Accept invitations to editorial board meetings to provide in-depth background to newspaper editors. File information for journalists to provide background information. Have the auditor general or other spokesperson write letters to the editor and guest editorials to present comments in their own words. You can also encourage media tours of audit office premises and audit sites.

Have a media advisory or press conference to draw attention to an upcoming event. However, such events should be used sparingly to communicate new and important messages. You can also hold media availability sessions or briefings, which are less formal than a news conference. Either the auditor general or other high-level officials should be personally available to answer questions.

In summary, remember that the media need not be a foe of your SAI. They can be partners in achieving impact and facilitating needed changes identified by your audits.