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Public Relations Committee

Publicly Relating: Notes from the Public Relations Committee

Elin Danien

The 63rd Annual Meeting in Seattle was a great success, no less for the Public Relations Committee than for the other 3,200 people who attended. Two dozen print and broadcast reporters signed in at the Press Office; based on the different sessions they attended, their wide-ranging areas of interest should result in a spate of articles. Among those attending were representatives of the NewYork Times, National Geographic, Science, Science News, Discover, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Times, Northwest Public Radio, and Air and Space Magazine.

A premeeting story appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the earliest human settlement of North America, and it included information from papers presented at the SAA meeting. During the meetings, based on papers given at different sessions, there were prominently-placed articles in both local newspapers. SAA president Vin Steponaitis represented SAA on a program about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and repatriation issues on Native America Calling, a syndicated call-in radio program based in Albuquerque, N.M., and distributed on some National Public Radio stations. In addition, reporters from Germany, Mexico, and Sweden conducted interviews. When the stories are published and the interviews are aired in your city, let us know what you think of them.

The Gene Stuart Award for the best 1997 newspaper article presenting archaeology to the public went to Diedtra Henderson, a science writer for the Seattle Times, who participated in our press workshop, received her award at the business meeting, and also picked up information that should result in several additional articles. Those of you in the Seattle area can look for her stories on reparations, endangered sites, and rock art in the near future. Alan Brew, chair of the Gene Stuart Award Committee, will be soliciting submissions for the 1999 award in the region surrounding the meeting site: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ontario.

Public Relations Committee members Andrea Elyse Messer, science writer for Penn State University, and Kerstine Johnson, California public relations consultant, organized this year's workshop on "Interviews, Press Releases, and Other Media Mysteries." Naturally, the insights gained in this very practical, intensive session cannot all be distilled here, but some of the highlights follow. Diedtra Henderson brought copies of stories that had run in the past year to explain what she looks for, how the researcher can help make the story better, and why some stories don't come out the way the researcher thought they should. Among her suggestions: provide the reporter with the names of some other experts in the field, including those who may not agree with your data; photographs and graphics always help get good placement for the story; and don't prejudge the potential public interest. . . let the reporter make that decision. If you know you're going to be working on an interesting research project, don't be afraid to tell a reporter about it, tell her that it cannot be printed until you give the okay, and take her into the field. The quality of the resulting article or series may be much better because the reporter was involved at the beginning, was present as the discoveries were made, and was able to get answers to questions as they arose. In addition, this can help cement relationships for future stories.

Dianna Georginna, of Northwest Public Radio, gave some very practical information about how to do a radio interview. A 30-minute discussion may be distilled to no more than 30 seconds in the final, edited version that is aired, so be sure you speak slowly and present your points clearly. Don't say anything "on the record" that really ought to be "off the record." In fact, if you don't know the reporter, it's a good idea not to say anything that could come back to haunt you. Among the no-no's: don't follow the mike. . . the reporter knows where to place it, and if she wants to keep it away from your mouth, she has a good reason for it. . . don't turn to face it! If a radio reporter calls and requests an interview, be sure to ask if you're being taped. If you're not ready to talk, tell the reporter to call back, and arrange a mutually agreeable time. While "no comment" can sound unpleasant, "I can't comment on that, it's outside my area of expertise," is totally acceptable.

Next, we engaged in a practicum. Kerstine Johnson led the participants in exercises to help them look and feel relaxed in television interviews and rehearsed them in ways to make their comments more interesting and exciting. Andrea Elyse Messer discussed the structure of a news release, and then participants wrote sample releases. These were critiqued and then provided the basis for mock radio interviews. Participants were subjected to a "good" reporter who was prepared, knew the subject, and asked penetrating questions; an "air head" who knew nothing and asked questions that had nothing to do with the subject; and a "tough" reporter, who had done research on the topic, asked hostile questions, and insisted on answers. Participants learned how to turn a potentially bad interview into a good one, how to stop a negative reporter, and how to stay on the topic, no matter how wild the reporter's questions. Next year (yes, we're already planning for Chicago) the workshop will focus on "The Attack of the TV Monsters" and will provide some solid coping mechanisms for when you find yourself faced with that unblinking red eye and a carefully coifed, but otherwise unprepared, television reporter!

One last point--if you're going to give a paper, and you think it has a high interest level for the public, contact your institution's press office, and let them in on it. If you don't have a press office, contact Toni Moore, the SAA press officer for the annual meeting, at

I have come to the end of my three-year stint as head of the Public Relations Committee, and I am very pleased that David Pendergast has agreed to serve as the new chair. I have learned a lot in these years, and I hope that we have been able to pass some practical information along to you. We all deal with the press to get the story of archaeology out to the public. And if we don't convince the public of the importance of archaeology, they won't vote the funds that keep us going or understand why we must preserve the past for the future.

Elin Danien is at the University of Pennsylvania.

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