When Reporters Go Too Far
- From PRNetwork 'Top of the Week'
Most of us have dealt with difficult reporters -- they have an axe to
grind, know what they want to write before they talk to you, and come up
with stories that make people in your organization shudder. But some go
too far. Jonathan Bernstein shares advice from his Crisis Manager ezine on
how you can fight back when reporters cross the line.
When the Media Goes Too Far
by Jonathan Bernstein
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
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 that have already been corrected by reputable sources.
And when they do, there is recourse other than just taking it in the
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
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
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
>From "Crisis Manager" ezine by Jonathan Bernstein, president & CEO,Bernstein Communications, Inc., http://www.bernsteincom.com Bernstein
Communications is a national public relations agency specializing in
crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting.
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