High Cost of Publicity


Deceit and the Hidden Cost of Publicity: A Media Relations Primer

by Brent Green

Not long ago a CEO worried about sales, his credibility on the line. He asked his public relations agency to place a story about the company’s newest product, a software program that automates decision analysis. Since the software was not fully debugged, the agency opposed early news release, but the CEO insisted that he wanted news coverage to help stimulate awareness. Accordingly, a popular computer magazine evaluated the product by interviewing pre-release users and conducting rigorous tests. The lead headline: “Decision-analysis Made Indecisive.” 

Executives often view publicity as free advertising. But those who scramble for headlines face an unpredictable creature. The good news: There is a plethora of media searching for upbeat stories about young and growing companies. The bad news: There is a phalanx of reporters interested in bringing readers, listeners, and viewers glimpses of devastation.

Whether the next headline about your company reads, “New era about to dawn,” or  “ Start-up tripping through minefield,” depends as much on your media-relations aplomb as the story itself. You cannot control how reporters and editors report the news, but you can rein them back.

Uppermost is your respect for the truth.

When crafting the Bill Of Rights, the Founding Fathers installed media as the first line of defense against manipulation, propaganda, bias, and hidden agendas. In a free society, this is a good thing. Truth is in the DNA of media; they seek it with as much fervor as a Golden Retriever follows its nose. You either make a choice to embrace this custodial rite or fight the American Way. When you fail to answer a reporter’s question candidly, your mendacity wafts an odor that many sniff, and even if you elude the truth this time, there’s always the next story, the next mongrel reporter on the loose. A lie lingers and attracts.

So, given the inviolability of truth when talking to media, what should you do if aspects of your company are malodorous?

Start by knowing what you intend to accomplish. Being clear about your communication goals makes it easier for you to pull a tugging reporter back to your agenda. Thus, you give brief, sincere, truthful answers to tough questions but bridge back to positive points. When confronted by nasty questions, tell also the good news. Politicians master this art; study them; it’s not that difficult.

You know where to find boo-boos in your strategies.  So, give an interview before you give an interview. Prepare by crafting succinct and congruent answers to the toughest questions a reporter could throw – then practice. Also, make sure everyone in your organization likely to receive a “just-to-check-a-fact” telephone call has similar answers to yours. Inconsistent answers are the ferment of frontal attacks. 

Meeting with a reporter is not a conversation; it’s a ritual. You are not speaking one-to-one with a commiserating human being; rather, you are speaking through the reporter to your critical publics: investors, customers, shareholders and regulatory officials. Every aspect of your demeanor is grist for the story. If a reporter asks you an insulting question, your indignant response could be what lands in quotes. A fleeting moment of outrage may be the clip selected for News at Ten. If you’re arrogant, belligerent, or withdrawn, guess who gets the lead part? No matter how disparaging the question, maintain your composure.

News reporting is not about your convenience. Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of punching line two to start a telephone conversation that begins the end of your career, you must respect a reporter’s quarry instincts – and her deadlines. Avoiding a reporter because this moment isn’t convenient reduces your image from curiosity item to target. You countercheck this by being accessible. Then you have a better chance of receiving a heads-up call before a reporter runs a negative story. You become known as a good source to set the record straight. Reporters like you.

You must ultimately cherish a powerful concept called balance. Few stories – even those placed in the most benign trade media – are void of criticism. The media don’t view it as their jobs to affirm your mission statement and business plan. They seek flaws, faux paws, and foibles. It’s common for reporters to talk to dozens of sources before running a story, including gathering comments from your competitors. Show your warts and talk about obstacles; reveal where uncertainty hides. When candid self-disclosure mixes with reasonable optimism, we read positive stories, real and insightful. We learn about executives and organizations that seem human and familiar.

Finally, if you are the unwitting subject of a media fusillade, remember that your critics and allies are a parade passing by the naked story. Any medium is a billboard, and the audience is but a procession, some glancing, the majority not. It’s rarely to your advantage to rebut inaccurate but essentially true news. You just attract attention from another part of the parade – those who did not hear the bad news the first time around. Besides, when anyone in the media slings a glob of mud, some always sticks.

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