Yesterday Ragan’s PR Daily, an excellent resource for professional communicators of all stripes, offered up a feature entitled “8 things to consider when TV news wants to skewer your client.” As is the usually the case with Ragan’s stuff, Gil Rudawsky’s article provided some useful on-point advice for the media relations practitioner, and the comment thread finds other experienced folks jumping into the discussion in helpful ways.
But – you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? – I can’t help quibbling a little. Let’s begin with Rudawsky’s eight points:
1. Prepare your client for the worst. Only on rare occasions is it possible to impact a television report. Remember, TV news programs tend to take a side, and if it is not that of your client, get ready for a shellacking.
2. Think twice about going on camera to respond. Through editing and transitions, proactive comments can be made to look defensive and even embarrassing. There are many cases when it makes sense to provide your side of the story on camera, but think about it strategically first. Do you really stand to alter the tone of the story by going on camera?
3. Provide clear and simple responses to their questions off camera.
4. Offer a short statement. A long statement will be cut in half or paraphrased. Television news typically uses four- to seven-second sound bites. Write your statement accordingly.
5. Get as much information about the story as possible. Whom are they interviewing? What documents do they have, and what’s their angle?
6. If you do go on camera, stick to few focused message points, regardless of the line of questioning, to avoid a damaging sound bite.
7. Consider making a response video, offering your side of the story. Post it on YouTube, repurpose it on social media channels, and tag it so that it shows up on searches for news stories about the topic.
8. Follow up with the reporter as more positive news happens, because you know the other side will be doing the same. At some point, your side might get some air time.
Nothing wrong there, is there? Except that his advice ignores the very first thing I’d do. It sidesteps what I would argue is the single most important thing a PR representative should do when a negative story draws a bead on his or her client.
What’s my alpha-imperative? Find out if the story is true.
Your client is used of selling stolen babies on the black market? I’m not talking to any reporter, on camera or off camera or in the same zip code with a camera, until I have some facts in hand. Maybe Rudawsky assumes this part – I’m sure many top-flight PR pros would – and I’m certainly not trying to paint him in a negative light – I’m merely using his post as a jumping-off point for something that has bothered me for awhile. (NOTE: Rudawsky works with a highly respected firm here in Denver and for all I know agrees with me on everything I’m about to say. I’d certainly welcome a response, should this post find its way to him, and S&R will gladly provide him space to address the question if he likes.)
PR vs. The Truth
I have known and worked with some absolutely world-class PR pros in my day, and I don’t mean that as hyperbole. I have been fortunate to work with a couple of the best corporate PR teams on the planet in my career (US West in the late 1990s and Volvo Cars North America in the early to mid-2000s), and I learned an incredible amount working with people like Roger Ormisher, Soren Johanssen, Jerry Brown, Steve Hammack, Marti Smith and Garth Neuffer. I’ve also dealt with some who seemed only vaguely concerned about the facts. They see themselves as being there to represent their clients’ stories, period. I recall badgering an accomplished senior colleague on this very point some years ago and the reply was brief and direct: “everyone is entitled to have their story represented in the best possible light.”
So, PR reps are like lawyers, then? We know that those accused in legal proceedings are entitled, by law, to counsel. We know that this right extends to the guilty. And to the guilty-as-sin. We know that lawyers routinely defend the most heinous members of our society, that they defend those who are obviously guilty beyond any shadow of a doubt, and we know that they offer up the most vigorous defense possible. This is how the system works, and in a nation of laws we must believe in the system because the alternative is rampant vigilantism.
Does public relations really play by the same assumptions? Well, I suppose you could argue that the 1st Amendment guarantees people the right to tell their stories. Corporations are people and money is speech. If you’re so inclined, then, you might craft these datapoints into something like a systemic demand for image representation. One further imagines that you could handily wrap a code of ethics around the whole bundle and walk away feeling pretty good about yourself.
Of course, there’s nothing like a Miranda ruling regarding the right to PR counsel. And if you need a spin job but can’t afford one, local agencies are not, I repeat not, available to be appointed by the court of public opinion. There’s no PR analogue to a public defender’s office. If your reputation gets stomped by the local FOX outlet you don’t go to jail (not directly, anyway). You don’t have to go to several years of graduate school and pass the a hellish bar exam to hang your shingle (although the APR certification process is certainly rigorous, as professional standards go).
Also, unlike attorneys, PR representatives are under binding (and sanctionable) requirement to tell the truth. The truth is, PR flaks lie every day with no threat of legal repercussions.
In other words, if you’re a PR flak representing pond scum, I’m not persuaded by a faux-ethical construct that encourages me to accord you the same kind of status that members of the legal profession enjoy. You may represent whomever you like, but you tie your reputation to that of your client every time you sign that retainer agreement.
Which means that the facts, as they relate to a bad news story for your client, are your practice’s single most important concern.
Q: Why Don’t Sharks Attack PR Professionals?
A Gallup analysis from last August indicated that the public’s opinion the PR industry was eroding, and in November I drew on those results in a piece questioning whether PR practitioners were to blame. The argument is much the same as it was then – PR professionals are often all too willing to defend the indefensible, and whether these activities are conducted under cover of an ethical code or are unflinchingly about the benjamins, the result is deteriorating public respect for what we do.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the Gallup poll cited above, PR’s negative ratings were a mere five percentage points better than those for lawyers. When we consider that a Google search on the term “lawyer jokes” returns nearly 1.5 million results, well, is that really a road we want to go down? Lawyers have an excuse when they stand up for a sociopath. You, fellow PR representative, do not.
Something to think about….
What? Oh, right.
A: Professional courtesy.