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When Reporters Go Too Far

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  • Jim Rink
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 29, 2001
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      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.

      Professional Topics:

      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
      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 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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      Jim Rink
      AAA Michigan
      1 Auto Club Drive, Dearborn, Mich. 48072
      voice 313.336.1513 fax 313.336.0986
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