Stories by Frankie Flack Frankie Flack
Last week the Columbia Journalism Review published a brief story about how various industry publications wrote notably different news pieces based on one press release.
The stories centered around a lawsuit between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Hotfile, which is described in the piece as “a cyberlocker service that lets users upload files and creates a link for each one.”
Because the ruling in the case was not immediately available through normal public channels, news media were forced to report on the story with virtually no direct sourcing on the result of the trial. Here is where MPAA made the savvy move to issue a press release pronouncing the ruling was a victory for the industry. Ignoring the resulting bias from technology media, with a natural inclination to support Hotfile, and entertainment reporters, with a similar bent toward the MPAA, the predominant storyline was that the ruling was a clear victory for MPAA.
Issuing the release was a savvy move from the MPAA, not simply for being the only direct commentary on the case but because in litigation often the first word is the most important. Most legal documents, especially judgments, are long and complicated.
Most of all, rarely do rulings offer clear, definitive language that supports the notion of a resounding victory for one side over the other. That is not to say it does not ever happen, though. It is rare because the court must weigh the arguments of both sides, meaning that competent attorneys will make strong points for their clients.
As a result, subsequent media reports of a ruling often rely on how one side or the other is reading the ruling.
If the law supports one argument over the other, the tone and length of the victorious party will help reporters contextualize exactly what it means for the company and maybe the industry. In these situations it is important to stay in line with the organization’s broader legal strategy. If an appeal is likely, the victorious company will need to be confident and excited about the ruling, but careful not to go too far in their language. It is always important to remember that judges, regulators and the opposition read these statements carefully.
In the case of Hotfile, while a statement may not have been entirely appropriate given that ruling was not favorable, ignoring the media only served to do further harm to the company’s public image. In order to bring the tone of the coverage back toward a more middle ground, the company might have considered a single interview where the executive was able to emphasize that the ruling was not as clear cut as MPAA made it out to be.
Another tactic, if allowed by the attorneys, would be to arrange for reporters to speak with legal counsel on background to provide more context to the ruling and highlight key points that refute claims in MPAA’s release.
Losing a verdict at trial does not have to mean a total loss in the court of public opinion.
CNBC has a lengthy and fascinating report online Tuesday about that some traders in Chicago somehow received word about the Federal Reserve Board’s announcement last week that it would not be scaling back its support of the economy. The investigation centers around a matter of milliseconds where traders were able to move large amounts of money ahead of a broader release of the news.
Considering it is impossible for a human to make a decision in the time in question, the story brings up serious questions about the impact of automated trading on market fairness. But that is no way my expertise, nor the purpose of this column.
What is particularly interesting about this piece though is the detail it offers about the elaborate process the Federal Reserve goes through to give a group of reporters a preview of the news while ensuring they do not publish the information in advance of the announcement. Here is what the piece describes:
In advance of the release of the market moving decision, Federal Reserve officials followed a standard procedure to choreograph a tightly planned embargo operation that gave reporters advance copies of the Fed’s decision. Inside a secure so-called “lockup” room on the top floor of the William McChesney Martin Jr. building, Fed officials instructed reporters not to send information about that decision to the outside world before precisely 2 p.m. EDT as measured by the national atomic clock in Colorado.
The doors were locked at 1:45 p.m., and Fed staffers handed out copies of the statement at 1:50 p.m., allowing reporters a few minutes to digest the complicated document before reporting on its contents. At 1:58 p.m. television reporters were escorted out of the room to a balcony where cameras had been positioned. The Fed’s security rules dictated that television reporters were not allowed to speak before precisely 2 p.m. Print reporters were told they were allowed to open a phone line to their editors at headquarters offices a few moments in advance of the hour, but not allowed to interact with people on the other end of the line until exactly 2 p.m.
On top of those precautions, every media person entering the lockup—including two employees of CNBC—was required to sign an agreement that read: “I understand that I may make no public use of the documents distributed by Federal Reserve Board (FRB) staff or the information contained therein, including broadcasting, posting on the Internet or other dissemination, until the time the FRB has set for their public release.”
It is unquestionably a lot of work to ensure news is disseminated simultaneously. Why would the Federal Reserve (and other organizations) take such pains to give a group of reporters highly complex news only minutes ahead of time?
Typically, embargoing news should only be done when the extra time you give a reporter results in a meaningful change in the coverage. By change, I do not want to imply an embargo is a way to get favorable coverage, but rather to ensure that highly complex news influencing a large number of people is accurately reported right out of the gate. So what can the Fed get in 15 minutes?
In that 15 minutes the Fed can make sure that reporters at least get the core message right and it does not turn into a “circus”-type moment that we have seen recently with U.S. Supreme Court decisions. That is a deceptively strong argument, as confusion about such critical financial news could have drastic consequences on the market.
However, given the potential implications even a milliseconds leak could have on the fairness of the marketplace, it may be prudent for the Fed to enhance its direct communications and reconsider the effectiveness of the lockup rooms. When leaks are a major concern, sometimes the only option is to limit the number of people involved. A more developed, “self-publishing” approach to communications could include things like a Fed broadcast center or newsroom that employs former journalists.
As many major PR firms have stated, self-publishing is a growing trend among corporate America and one that the Fed may want to explore itself. At the end of the day, what is clear is that balancing the need for market fairness and accurate reporting is a complicated and relentless battle for the Fed’s communications leaders.
Last week, I happened to be listening to “Mike & Mike,” a morning ESPN Radio show where the hosts discuss the major sports news of the day. That day they were discussing news how Ryan Braun, a player for the Milwaukee Brewers who has been accused of steroid use and suspended from baseball, was personally calling season ticket holders to apologize for his mistakes.
The hosts were debating the merits of Braun’s recent apology, wondering if it were a classy move or a shameless part of a PR stunt. Furthermore, the host who thought this was a simple PR stunt was also convinced fans would not want to have a cordial conversation with Braun, but rather hang up on him or yell at him for being a poor role model to children.
The two sides of the debate were so sharply drawn, it struck me as the classic media debate over any troubled business (or business executive) and the difficult nature of rebuilding reputation once it is lost.
While I am in no way involved with Braun or his team of advisors, I do think he’s getting some good advice. Well, at least he’s getting some decent PR advice right now. That is because he is focused on the long, arduous and thankless task of actually building a reputation again with the people that matter.
As is so often said, a reputation takes a lifetime to build but is lost in a second. I like to think that building reputation is akin to the little engine that could, it requires slow, steady and consistent performance over time. No one action can give a company a good reputation. Even donating $1 billion to cancer research, while admirable and positive, cannot give a company a sterling reputation in one move (though it certainly would be a big step in the right direction).
So if getting that little engine up the hill the first time was hard, getting back to the peak after faltering is near impossible.
What PR professionals all too often forget though is that good press did not get the little engine to the top of the hill in the first place and can do even less the second time around. All the media does in building reputation is to help underscore performance, merely informing the world of an accomplishment, not creating one itself.
Which brings me back to the ESPN Radio piece. The calls to season ticket holders was not something Braun was doing to make a big show of it, he was simply moving along the tracks toward recovering something of his reputation. The vigorous debate only showed just how far he still has to go.
These same principles apply to rebuilding a business’ reputation. Quiet actions move you down the track. PR people who find themselves actively touting a battered companies image all the time also will continue to run into skeptical reporters that will only make that climb back to the top harder.
Let the business perform, and the media story will follow.
I’m a big fan of business news in all forms, print, online, radio and television.
However, I have to admit that, for me, business news is just better in print. This is really fundamentally driven by the different business models of print and broadcast news that forces them to go after consumers in different ways. One thing that broadcast media does tend to do better is foster debate among experts and demonstrate intangible qualities of business leaders.
But this isn’t a lesson on business models in the media world.
The result is that at the end of the day this creates a different dynamic between PR professionals and the anchors, producers and bookers involved in creating business broadcast news. While there are slightly different dynamics with those three audiences, there are some general principles to keep in mind when working with broadcast journalists.
The first is that speed is paramount. This applies to any interaction with media, but is enhanced even further with broadcast. News stories are only a matter of minutes long, leaving little room to capture all the nuance of complicated issues.
When working with bookers, PR professionals should focus on understanding the segment being discussed and not necessarily balancing out the story with backgrounding, etc. It is important to understand if the segment is one-on-one, who the anchor/s will be, where it will be held, when the guest needs to be present, etc. The more the PR person knows about the segment the better they can prepare their guest to manage any issues.
Things change a bit when working with a producer, who has more editorial control over exactly how the segment will be positioned. Here PR professionals should work much in the same way they do with print reporters, offering background information, answering questions on background and generally helping to shape the story.
In the typically rare instance of working directly with the anchor, the PR professional should quickly deliver a top line message but also (if relevant) push the anchor to ask key questions of the competition.
Most of all, PR professionals must always keep in mind that broadcast journalists are going to be incredibly quick and must keep the most salient one to two key points top of mind. This is not necessarily the same key message for print, but the one message you would want to seen on the screen.
While my humble opinion puts print above broadcast, it is undeniable that broadcast news creates a dynamic that tests business executives in ways print simply cannot.
This is a critical dynamic that PR professionals have to carefully consider in all their interactions with broadcast journalists.
Writing business news is unquestionably an increasingly difficult task. Each year its seems that the financial markets become more sophisticated and faster moving as companies become larger and more complex.
It is not an enviable task then to be the lonely reporter, who likely got into journalism due to some aversion to numbers, finance or business in general, to understand what is going on and then put it in terms their readership can understand.
No, this column is not going to be a big love letter to business reporters. The point here is that the complexity of the financial markets and business universe creates a nearly impossible task for many business reporters. I would argue that the decimation of local business sections around the world can be attributed to this fact, among others. Conversely, it has also created many news outlets that do possess the skills to really dive into business news, but the resulting product is mostly unintelligible for the average citizen.
While I think there are serious problems with this structure from a macro-perspective, I am not going to use this column as an outlet to critique something so broad as media’s duty to its readership.
Consider the coverage of Goldman’s aluminum warehouses. Some outlets dove into the nuances of commodities trading, LME rules and market imbalances while others focused on the basic functionality of shipping aluminum. Unfortunately, the best story lies somewhere in between these two approaches.
What the divergence in readership knowledge means that PR people need to be ever conscious of both the background of the reporter and his or her outlet. For example, the beat reporter at Bloomberg News will likely focus on different issues within a company then say the New York Post or even NBC News.
This tends to be a pretty easy issue to navigate, but it can become tricky when a company makes a move so complex that even the most sophisticated journalists need assistance in unpacking the news. In this case, the PR person needs to be shrewd in helping journalists understand the issue and selective in choosing areas to underscore the nuance of key facts.
What I mean by this is that in a fast-moving situation where a good amount of confusion about the basic functionality of the announcement appears, a good PR person should not get bogged down in making sure reporters understand every little nuance involved.
This is something that many executives will insist on, but is often a fruitless effort that only incrementally helps the resulting coverage.
Typically, I will walk through the basics upfront, even if the reporter professes to be an expert in this area. Many times I have found that this exercise of focusing on the simple functionality of the announcement allows both PR and reporter to level-set and makes it much easier to address questions. Additionally, this exercise helps me keep everything straight in my head.
For example, in a litigation issue I would walk through what type of suit was initiated, where it was filed and what the court allows to happen next and then run through the main arguments of the case.
This way many of my answers will likely refer back to something I’ve already said.
A good friend of mine once told me that when it comes to business competition most senior executives would offer their first born child to gain one point of market share from a competitor.
While this is certainly an overstatement of biblical proportions, it is instructive to remember that while public relations tend to focus on the positive aspects of corporate existence (emphasizing a friendly working environment, respectful competition, new business wins, etc.) business is still business. In that I mean businesses only truly succeed when they are growing and that reality creates fierce competitions.
Most of us in the public relations industry do our best to downplay direct competition with other organizations because (simplistically) customers — the most critical audience of all — almost never want to support a “bully.”
However, there are times when the day-to-day battle between sales people spills over into the media world, and a PR person has to fight it out in the press.
For example, when major brand name A sues major brand name B there is typically a lot of emotion internally and a lot of media attention externally. First of all, for most companies getting all the way to fighting a battle in court is a big step and likely has put a fair amount of money on the line to do so. Therefore, both sides have a lot invested in winning and want to win every battle, including the one going on in the press.
As a PR person, the first goal should be to support the business strategy. Most often, press coverage of a court battle doesn’t do much for either side so it’s likely the recommendation is to not go out and pitch new articles. However, that doesn’t mean the coverage and related reporter inquiries can be ignored either.
The PR person’s role is to engage with the media to ensure that your company’s side of the story is told fairly. In certain cases, this may mean drawing attention to issues not yet covered but support your company’s overall argument.
For example, press coverage may not immediately pick up on the fact that Company A has a history of filing lawsuits and rarely wins these suits. This is an important factual point that Company B’s PR person may want to draw attention to in conversations with press.
What often is lost in fighting a press battle though is that the reporters aren’t in on the fight. Many times PR people will see an article that seemingly takes a side in the fight and yell at the reporter for being incompetent, etc. This happens a lot, and typically there are good reasons for why the coverage appears slanted.
Some reasons might include being misinformed, a differing reading of the facts or (in some cases) the reporter has more facts than the PR person. PR people should get corrections where warranted, push for proper context of key points but read all coverage from an objective point of view.
The point is that the reporter is simply the conduit to reaching a broader audience. While internally executives could be ranting and raving about the press, it’s critical the PR person keeps a level head. Remaining calm and focusing on having productive conversations with reporters, even reasoned arguments over a few key points, can go a long way to getting fair coverage.
When businesses battle in the press, victories are often won on the margins where saner heads tend to prevail.
I have spent a lot of time in this column discussing the importance of building relationships with reporters. You hear it so often in the public relations world that many people have stopped thinking about what these words mean and why “relationships” are a cornerstone of the practice of public relations.
In fact, many reporters would likely argue that not only has the origin of this adage has been forgotten but the meaning has been ignored. That is what happens when lessons are taught without examples. If you can’t explain to a new college graduate just exactly why reputation and relationships matter in the PR business, then the practicality of the advice will be ignored.
This is why when teaching media relations to new PR people I emphasize a simple and critical function of the PR and media relationship: talking a reporter off all or a part of a story.
Getting a reporter to walk away from any bit of a story can be no easy task and from a PR perspective comes in vary degrees of difficulty. At its simplest, the reporter has heard something that is interesting but is actually inaccurate. At the most advanced, a reporter is on to something that is accurate and potentially damaging to a client (which I will discuss in more detail in a later column).
In a simple example, let’s assume that a reporter calls up the PR person and says they are working on a story that XYZ Corp. spent $4.5 billion in the last year on development of a new product. In reality the development of the new product cost $3.5 billion. While most people would assume that this is a simple problem to solve, when it comes to corporate spending disclosures nothing is simple. Private or public companies likely do not want to disclose this information, but if reported inaccurately the market could punish the company for spending too much.
Enter the PR pro with his strong relationship with the reporter. In this case, the PR pro can work with the reporter off-the-record to guide the reporter in the right direction. In this case, the PR pro might say “you know I can’t confirm our spending numbers on or off the record, but I can tell you that the number you have number is high.” In some cases, the company may even make the decision to supply the accurate number on background.
What becomes glaringly obvious in this example is the trust that has be established between the reporter and the PR pro. If the reporter doesn’t trust the PR person they may pause at the off the record caution but will likely push forward with that number.
However, if the reporter can trust the PR pro then it’s more likely they will appreciate the guidance. On a side note, I believe a company or agencies reputation matters just as much here, too. Even without an existing relationship with the PR pro, a reporter may have trust in the agency or company based on previous experiences.
Working with reporters cannot be a one-way street in which the PR pro hits send on a million emails and hopes a few “bite” on the story. (Unfortunately, this has become such a common practice it’s now known as “spray and prey”). A good PR pro has to be able to help a reporter write accurate and timely pieces while effectively representing their company or client.
It can be tricky at times, but open, honest and clear dialogue will build that trust and make life much easier.
During the last couple of weeks the number of headlines using the words crisis, scandal and shocker have increased tenfold. Political editors have had to dive deeply into their thesaurus’ to keep the text of one scandal story after another fresh for readers.
While I am no expert on governmental affairs or political public relations, the constant drumbeat of news has reminded me of times when a client finds itself in the media crosshairs.
These type of things can develop in all sorts of ways. The dreaded phone call from “60 Minutes,” a regulatory filing, a lawsuit, cops on the front door or even a facilities accident. What I want to emphasize here though, is that the type of crisis situation here has to do with something company did to itself. Company’s find themselves in crisis situations all the time for things that aren’t necessarily their fault. Handled well, these tend to fade fast. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that your client is thrust in the national spotlight and how you as the PR adviser help handle the next moves.
There are a number of different ways to approach a company’s communications approach in the midst of what I will call a “self-inflicted” crisis. The trick is that whatever prompted the initial news, the company recognizes that there is more to the story that has yet to come out. Most communications advisers would say that it’s best to just peal the band-aid off all at once and get all the news out so that the company can go back to operating the business. This is good advice, but it presupposes that corporate managers can know all that is lurking out there.
In many cases, the company may have a sense that more is going to come out, but simply can’t know what that information will be exactly. This is where the communications adviser needs to work closely with legal counsel to consider the next steps. The last thing any company wants is for news to drip out over time. A steady drumbeat of news can cripple a company as employees lose focus, outsiders ask more questions, regulators pay more attention and operating the business becomes harder and harder.
Therefore the focus needs to be to try and craft a credible communications approach that allows the company to put out as much information regarding the problem as possible, while also closing the door on the issue for some determined amount of time. This is typically done by launching an internal investigation (as likely should be in for good business practice) and telling reporters the company will not have a comment until that investigation is done.
Engaging with reporters from that point on should be focused on background conversations to update them as appropriate on news events, but also to use that outlet as an important way to gather information. As I mentioned above, company’s may not know all the dirt that is about to spill out and an important way to get ahead of this can be to work productively with the media.
At the end of the day, there is little a company can do in these situations to have a significant impact on the media attention brought on by “self-inflicted” wounds. The goal is to manage the situation so that the problem can be solved and the business can continue to operate.
In the great comedy sketch “Who’s on First” two comedians, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, go back and forth in a wonderfully written piece where the two performers struggle to understand the names of the players on a St. Louis baseball team.
Hearing the patient Costello inform a confused and irritated Costello the names of players are “who,” “what” and “I don’t know” reminds me of some conversations often had between PR people and reporters.
PR language has a way of leading to circular conversations at times, especially when a PR person is able to confirm only partial bits of information. I find this to be more common with public companies that are confronted with the balancing act of releasing information to the market with a nearly universal business desire to keep most things private.
However, conversations between PR people and reporters become truly comical when a reporter is on the hunt for information. In these early discussions both sides tend to put on the extra-friendly exterior but at the same time manage to miraculously wipe their brain of all relevant information. It can be a fun and frustrating bit of chess playing as each side tries to learn as much as possible while also revealing as little as possible.
The PR person in these conversations wants to try and keep the reporter talking about this potential story so they can understand what the piece will focus on, if there is anything alarming for a client, are there any competitors involved and other pieces of information that inform how they may want to participate in the story.
It is exceedingly easy to play dumb (and in many cases it’s not even playing) as the PR person and being a dutiful note taker is step one for any good media relations professional. However, at a more advanced level simply taking notes will not get you all the information that is required. Here is where pre-existing relationships help, as the PR person can have more of a blunt conversation with the reporter about the story and get beyond the top-line details.
While leaning on all the usual “I don’t knows”, “I’m not sures” and “I’ll get back to yous” a good media relations professional might begin to indicate an interest in the story. For example a PR pro might say “I’ll have to get back to you on this, but as you know we do have a facility in that area so this could be interesting. Are you also talking to Competitor Y?”
At the same time, the reporter is trying to be careful about protecting their story while also getting the source to contribute. Sometimes it is helpful to lay the whole thing out there, but in a hyper-competitive news environment it’s increasingly important to keep the focus of the story close to the vest.
In the end, these conversations sound a bit like “Who’s on first,” with the hem and hawing as both sides feign ignorance.
But unlike Abbott and Costello, PR people and reporters (at least some of them) have figured out a meaningful way to communicate in the midst of the confusion.
Every now and then my email will suddenly become inundated with emails from friends and colleagues in the PR industry all emailing me one story. Before evening opening any one of these notes I know exactly what the content of the story will be — a story featuring some PR person doing something stupid.
Sometimes it’s just poor a quote or subtle reference to tension between PR and reporter but most likely it’s a full story focused squarely on something a PR person did to irk a reporter. For an industry dedicated to speaking with reporters on a daily basis, it’s a little ironic how paranoid we can be about ending up in a media story. I wonder if the people who juggle flaming sticks are equally amazed when someone in their field inadvertently sets themselves on fire.
The best story I’ve seen lately where a PR “pro” metaphorically set themselves ablaze was when Beyonce’s PR rep emailed the infamously snarky BuzzFeed to request they take down less-than-flattering photos of the superstar. (Note: I have no way of knowing exactly how the Beyonce issue was handled. All commentary below is not specific to any particular situation).
It’s a situation in which almost every PR pro has found themselves dealing with at one time or another. An important client calls up incredulous at what a media outlet has decided to publish and demands a change. Instead of taking a few minutes to think through how best to handle the request, the PR person does exactly what they were told and fires off an email to the outlet.
No one likes corrections. PR people don’t like asking for them, and reporters almost never like changing their story (unless it’s a simple mistake like misspelling a name). Because both sides aren’t going to enjoy the conversation, it’s human nature to avoid conflict and opt for email. This is a fundamental mistake on the PR person, especially when dealing with a publication that publishes stories incessantly and on almost any topic.
While uncomfortable, a simple phone call is critical. It will give the PR person a sense of how the reporter reacts to the request and, most of all it will not give the reporter a chance to turn the request into a standalone story.
Not every reporter is looking to turn a PR person’s email into a story. We’re just not that interesting. However, there is a certain line where a reporter is almost required to put pen to paper and let the world know what we are up to behind the scenes. In my opinion this almost always happens when a PR person mixes pushiness with a genuinely bad idea.
As PR people we need to defend our clients and push back against reporters from time to time. But we also need to consider the reporter, understand the media outlet and most of all, evaluate the clients demand.
Now that BuzzFeed is launching a business vertical, I would caution my colleagues in the field to think twice before asking them to take down embarrassing photos of their hedge fund clients.