This article, written by Bernstein Crisis Management president Jonathan Bernstein, has only grown in relevance since it was written. More often than not when we’re assisting clients with breaking crisis response there are reporters involved, and a worrying percentage of those reporters are willing to go beyond what we’d consider ethical in pursuit of a clickworthy story.
Everyone expects journalists to be pushy, to report facts less-than-accurately at times and to insist on a level of access to information that makes both attorneys and PR professionals cringe. To a significant extent, that’s their job and those of us who respond to the media “dance the dance” with them and hope for some balance in the resulting coverage.
Sometimes, however, reporters and/or the media outlet they serve go too far. They cross the line from aggressive to offensive. They insist on publishing facts which have already been corrected by reputable sources. And when they do, there is recourse other than just taking it in the teeth.
When Reporters Get Offensive
In an actual situation that occurred in 1999, a reporter for an Arizona newspaper, assigned to coverage of an ongoing business crisis situation, apparently got frustrated at his inability to obtain interviews with certain representatives of that business. The organization in crisis had decided, at that point, to communicate only by written statement. The frustrated journalist called the administrative assistant to one of the business’ outside attorneys and insisted on talking to the attorney. When she, appropriately, told him the “party line” that all media calls were to go the PR director of the business (where he’d already called without success), he threatened her. He said that he would publish HER name as the one responsible for information not being available to the public.
She contacted the business’ crisis management consultant, who advised her boss, the attorney, that the reporter was in gross violation of journalistic ethics and advised him to write a letter explaining what had happened to legal counsel for the paper. He did and, after some communication back and forth, the paper not only apologized to the assistant in writing, but gave her a free subscription — and the reporter became the subject of an internal investigation. His bullying tactics stopped.
When the Media Ignores the Facts
If a spokesperson for an organization in crisis has repeatedly communicated demonstrably accurate information to the media only to see it not used, or has made statements that are repeatedly misquoted, the same tactic of having legal counsel communicate with legal counsel can often make a positive difference. Usually, first, you want to establish a trail of evidence that you have, in fact, taken every reasonable action to get the facts corrected. You’ve sent polite written corrections to the reporter(s) involved. You’ve met with him/her in person to explain your perception of the problems. You’ve met with his/her supervising editor. And the problem persists.
If a media outlet’s editorial bias is so strong that it won’t cooperate even if threatened with more formal legal action, it is time to remember that the media is NOT your most important audience. Why? Because it’s the least manageable and it has an agenda of its own. There are a lot of ways “around” the irresponsible media outlet. One is considering use of “advertorials,” perhaps even in a competing outlet (if there is one). That is the process of buying advertising space — print or air time — and putting your own message in there, formatted to look or sound just like news coverage. Sure, it will have to have the words “advertising” somewhere in the piece, but studies have shown that well-done advertorials are almost as well received by media audiences as regular news coverage. And you control the message.
In addition to, or instead of advertorials, consider whether the audiences important to you or your client are actually being negatively influenced by the media coverage? And is it their primary source of information on the subject? I have known of cases where, when asked, key audiences tell client companies that they don’t believe the media coverage and think reporters are on a witch hunt. It could well be that, by simply increasing positive and accurate DIRECT communication with key audience members (more phone calls, letters, meetings, etc.) about a crisis situation that you will balance out the inaccurate negativity in the press.
Remember: we’re not at the mercy of the press as much as some members of the press would like us to believe. And at its core, “the media” is just people like you and me. People in every profession “break the rules,” they violate the ethics and responsible business practices to which they allegedly subscribe. Reporters and editors are no different. And not only do we have ways to respond but, if we don’t, we’re tacitly encouraging the rule-breaking.
Editor’s Note: If you want some guidelines to help you determine if a journalist is being unethical, read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics at: https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp