NIGA midyear will teach how to deal with media

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WASHINGTON, - "The tribes have to call back."

That's lesson number one in a media training program that the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) will offer at its upcoming mid-year meeting Aug. 18 and 19 at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minn. Battered by hostile mainstream media reporting, Indian gaming leaders have turned to NIGA for a public relations response. The mid-year meeting will feature one aspect of the campaign, helping tribal leaders develop skills in dealing with reporters and television interviewers.

NIGA will offer sessions with professional media trainers who have worked with it since the campaign began early this year. In addition, the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) will present its own panel, giving the perspective of working reporters. The two efforts aim to give tribal officers confidence in presenting their case to the media.

"There's still such a gap in communications," said Elizabeth Hill, Ojibway, a public relations professional based in the Washington, D.C. area. "They're reticent, suspicious, even in talking to their own people."

One of the big problems, she said, is that American Indian leadership is notoriously reluctant to answer press inquiries. "The tribes just don't call back," she said.

NIGA has already sponsored several sessions with media training firms that help prepare people for press interviews and appearances on television. It has retained former television anchor Nancy Mathis with First Take Communications in Washington, and publicist Laura Knapp with the firm Off-Madison Avenue in Tempe, Ariz. Some training took place at the recent National Congress of American Indians mid-year meeting at the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, but the pace will quicken at the Mystic Lake meeting.

The first day of the meeting will feature media training, along with a golf tournament and its annual award banquet. The general membership meeting will start on August 19.

"We're steadily building," said NIGA public relations director Carla Nicholas.

A sample of NIGA's training will go on national display a week before, when Chairman Ernest L. Stevens Jr. will make a live appearance on the top-rated Fox Network talk show "The O'Reilly Factor." Stevens sought the appearance to reply to a June 16 broadcast devoted to Indian gaming. Host Bill O'Reilly started the earlier show with the words, "Some say this is the biggest scam in American history."

"O'Reilly did a show on Indian gaming that didn't have any Indians," said Nicholas. But somewhat to NIGA's surprise, O'Reilly accepted its offer of an Indian viewpoint. Stevens, Oneida of Wisconsin, is known for his ability to present the benefits of Indian gaming in down-to-earth personal terms.

The show will broadcast live on August 12 from Fox studios in Manhattan.