Media tips for Australian OHS professionals

The occupational health and safety (OHS) profession in Australia has suffered from the lack of a public voice.  This is partly due to ineffective and disorganised professional associations but more it is due to fear – fear of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of failure….  This is peculiar because a fundamental element of OHS is communication.  Below is some information from an Australian journalism textbook that may help reduce some of that fear.

Code of Ethics

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (ie. the journalists’ “union” in Australia) publishes a Code of Ethics. (Similar organisations round the world have equivalent documents and obligations)  This is vital information for any journalist but also important for those who want to engage with the media, perhaps through interviews.  For instance, on the use of sources, the Code says

“Aim to attribute information to its source.  Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.  Where confidences are accepted,  respect them in all circumstances.”

On approaching people for information, the Code says:

“Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material.  Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.”

This latter point may be most relevant for OHS professionals.  The journalist must identify themselves, usually during an introduction.  Public seminars and conferences encourage questions from “the floor” and it is not only for marketing purposes that I say “I’m Kevin Jones from the SafetyAtWorkBlog” prior to asking a question. Hosts often ask speakers to identify themselves and where they are from.  This is not just a courtesy but an important point in establishing the context for the question.  Hosts should not resist in interrupting a speaker to have them state or restate their identification.

On or Off the record

Don't Bury the LeadDon’t bury the lead‘ is a guidebook on news gathering and reporting (sadly out-of-print but available in second-hand stores).  It was published in 2002 and benefits greatly from being at the start of blogging and in discussing the organic/old school methods of researching, reporting and writing.

Most people are familiar with the phrases “on the record” and “off the record” but few outside of journalism are clear on their meanings.  “On the record” means

“….the reporter is allowed to use anything that the source says and to quote the speaker freely, identifying him or her by name.” (page 21)

This may be tricky for both the journalist and the source but can be helped by clarifying the status of the conversation from the start.  If one is being interviewed, and the interview is being taped, as it usually is, have the statement made during recording so there is evidence.

At the start of a public OHS seminar, conference or event, make the audience aware that there are media representatives present and establish some rules.  For instance, the speakers may be quoted, as it is a public event, but questions from the audience members are not.  In this way, people are not deterred from asking questions.

“Off the record” means

“… information cannot be quoted and cannot be used in any other way.”

This is not ideal in communication as the journalist is usually looking for quotable or reportable information.  That is their job.  The risk for those who want to communicate their message is that the journalist can simply refuse to interview.  Then there are no “winners”.

My suggestion is if OHS professionals want to communicate, have the conversation on the record BUT be constantly aware that whatever is said is “on the record”.  Several years ago, I attended a one-day conference as a media representative.  One speaker, an OHS lawyer who I had known for sometime and who knew I was in the audience, at the conclusion of his presentation, rushed up to me and asked me not to quote some his statements.  These statements were certainly newsworthy.  It was my choice on what to use for an article but that lawyer should have been more cautious in the words used on stage.

It should be no surprise that I encourage OHS professionals to use the media much more than they have in the past, but to do so cautiously and only after understanding the “rules”. There are many more media opportunities for communication than in the past but the social media is unregulated or rather self-regulated. Social media writers and bloggers do not all follow the Code of Ethics or have any background in journalism.  This may be part of the fear of many OHS professionals but fears can be overcome with a little research, a little practice, a little preparation and strategy.

Communicating with clients, the public and the regulators through the media is an important way of growing the public profile of the OHS profession and strengthening the public awareness of the importance of OHS. In Australia, in particular, it is time to face the fear.

Kevin Jones

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