Recent headlines have ignited a fight that has pitted those who support working with the media against those who see advantage to working against the press. Mark Twain, said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” As someone who has long established and maintained press relationships, I say, beware who you take a swing at, because reporters like nothing more than a good battle. That’s not to say that they will go out of their way to start one, but they will use a lot of time, patience, sources and resources to identify and report on an issue that they view as a conflict or controversy. They will fight tooth and nail to drag dirty laundry into the public light. And they have the Constitutional right to report, or not, on what they judge the public should know.
In a non-partisan, apolitical setting, let’s discuss ways to engage with the media when there is debate about the facts, an underlying issue with a publication or journalist, or when we are nervous about sensitive or damaging information becoming public.
The Facts Are Wrong: Despite reporters’ best efforts, sometimes they do get facts wrong based on incorrect information from their sources, erroneous data or human error. One of the best ways to correct something that is incorrect is before it ever goes to print. In many cases, reporters will call the subject of their story to verify or get comment. Having a conversation will offer you the opportunity to refute a factual error or potentially build professional goodwill. And sometimes the mistake is on us. If we give a reporter the wrong info, we need to tell them and be forthright. Journalists’ reputations are built on trust, credibility and accuracy. When in the public eye, our own relationships with the press and the public writ large are also weighed similarly. So, the subject, source and journalist are all best served by engaging in a professional relationship.
Not Liking a Particular Journalist or Publication: There are relationships that can start or turn sour between source or client and a specific reporter or their news outlet. It is incumbent upon us as those who rely on the press to cover us fairly, or at all, to figure out how to improve that working relationship. One bad experience shouldn’t tarnish the whole news outlet, or the entire industry for that matter. But if you feel that you are being treated unfairly, go to the powers that be at the publication and air those grievances behind closed doors. Be sure to address the issue with specific facts and incidents that have occurred. Do not argue hurt feelings. You will gain no traction. In the end, to have a long simmering feud with any media outlet will ultimately end up hurting you or your firm.
Trying to Hide the Real Facts: Lack of transparency will quickly make you or your organization an easy and potentially rewarding target for the press. Facts are hard to hide, and once they are widely disseminated, even harder to argue. When faced with unflattering facts, it’s important to have reasonable and accurate talking points that address the issue. Ignoring the topic, not being prepared, or being dishonest will leave a hole for someone else to fill. That could leave you marginalized and compromised as others are sought to tell your story for you.
Your approach should always lean towards working with reporters first. If they are unwilling to hear your side, or purposely push false facts and statements, then it’s time to take next steps by putting them on notice and speaking with the top of the masthead, writing a rebuttal to the editor and putting a factual response on your own website.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of the media are not malicious. They are curious and want to get to the truth. The more we can work with them, the more likely they are to listen and include your perspective or that of your PR client.
Melissa Daly is the founder and president of MFD Communications, a firm which focuses on developing, honing and communicating clients’ key messages to stakeholders. Melissa provides messaging, media training and presentation coaching for clients in a range of business sectors, as well as academia, law and professional services firms. Prior to starting MFD in 2011, Melissa was Vice President, Corporate Communications at Goldman Sachs beginning at the height of the financial crisis. There she was responsible for communications for Goldman’s Asset Management and Private Wealth Divisions as well as Goldman’s political and lobbying activities. Prior to that she was with Brunswick Group for four years where she spearheaded its US financial services practice. Earlier in her career, she held senior communications roles at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper. Melissa is often quoted in the press discussing a variety of business and communications issues and Bloomberg calls her “a veteran Wall Street message maker.” Her broad experience spans across business sectors and continents.