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Mesa Musings: Man bites dog on campus? 'Zounds!'

June 27, 2011|By Jim Carnett

A sight stopped me in my tracks during my morning walk last Wednesday.

The spectacle took me back to my 37-year career as community relations director at Orange Coast College. Somewhat like Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, I served as OCC's spokesman to the news media — print and electronic. It was ever a challenge!

What I saw at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday was a television news van parked in front of Costa Mesa's City Hall. The truck had its microwave antenna fully extended in preparation for transmitting City Council budget alerts to "Nerve Central" in Hollywood.

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Though City Hall appeared quiet at that hour, following a contentious late-night public session on the city's budget, a TV camera and microphone were set up in front of the building, presumably to grab interviews with soon-to-be-arriving municipal employees.

At that moment, I experienced a jolt of adrenaline and a budding sense of anxiety. That's exactly how I'd felt each time TV trucks visited OCC's campus during my tenure. It was my duty to run interference.

Most reporters would call in advance and say: "Jim, we're headed to your campus. We'd like to interview you about XYZ story, and we'd like to talk with students and staff members. We'll be there in an hour."

Some reporters, however, chose to pull "ambushes" — dropping in unannounced.

Usually, I'd get a call from a campus security officer saying: "Jim, there's a news truck pulling into the parking lot." I'd track it down.

Let me pass along some advice to would-be "flacks": If you're the PR professional for a Southern California college and a Los Angeles news truck lands on your doorstep, that's not necessarily a good thing.

PR-types are notorious for trying to cajole media outlets into covering their institutions. I was guilty of that. But, be careful of what you wish for! If a TV truck arrives unsolicited and hoists its microwave antenna, chances are you're in for a bumpy ride.

They almost never show up in response to a press release touting a "feel-good" story about the college. They generally arrive with an agenda.

Conflict is the mother's milk of the news biz. TV reporters are drawn to controversy like kelp flies to mounds of putrefying seaweed.

I was involved in several hundred on-camera interviews during my time as spokesman for the college. It was my responsibility to give the institution's position on a given matter.

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