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media relations

The Real Risks of Fighting with the Press

Recent headlines have ignited a fight that has pitted those who support working with the media against those who see advantage to working against the press. Mark Twain, said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” As someone who has long established and maintained press relationships, I say, beware who you take a swing at, because reporters like nothing more than a good battle. That’s not to say that they will go out of their way to start one, but they will use a lot of time, patience, sources and resources to identify and report on an issue that they view as a conflict or controversy. They will fight tooth and nail to drag dirty laundry into the public light. And they have the Constitutional right to report, or not, on what they judge the public should know.

In a non-partisan, apolitical setting, let’s discuss ways to engage with the media when there is debate about the facts, an underlying issue with a publication or journalist, or when we are nervous about sensitive or damaging information becoming public.

The Facts Are Wrong: Despite reporters’ best efforts, sometimes they do get facts wrong based on incorrect information from their sources, erroneous data or human error. One of the best ways to correct something that is incorrect is before it ever goes to print. In many cases, reporters will call the subject of their story to verify or get comment. Having a conversation will offer you the opportunity to refute a factual error or potentially build professional goodwill. And sometimes the mistake is on us. If we give a reporter the wrong info, we need to tell them and be forthright. Journalists’ reputations are built on trust, credibility and accuracy. When in the public eye, our own relationships with the press and the public writ large are also weighed similarly. So, the subject, source and journalist are all best served by engaging in a professional relationship.

Not Liking a Particular Journalist or Publication: There are relationships that can start or turn sour between source or client and a specific reporter or their news outlet. It is incumbent upon us as those who rely on the press to cover us fairly, or at all, to figure out how to improve that working relationship. One bad experience shouldn't tarnish the whole news outlet, or the entire industry for that matter. But if you feel that you are being treated unfairly, go to the powers that be at the publication and air those grievances behind closed doors. Be sure to address the issue with specific facts and incidents that have occurred. Do not argue hurt feelings. You will gain no traction. In the end, to have a long simmering feud with any media outlet will ultimately end up hurting you or your firm. 

Trying to Hide the Real Facts: Lack of transparency will quickly make you or your organization an easy and potentially rewarding target for the press. Facts are hard to hide, and once they are widely disseminated, even harder to argue. When faced with unflattering facts, it’s important to have reasonable and accurate talking points that address the issue. Ignoring the topic, not being prepared, or being dishonest will leave a hole for someone else to fill. That could leave you marginalized and compromised as others are sought to tell your story for you.

Your approach should always lean towards working with reporters first. If they are unwilling to hear your side, or purposely push false facts and statements, then it’s time to take next steps by putting them on notice and speaking with the top of the masthead, writing a rebuttal to the editor and putting a factual response on your own website.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of the media are not malicious. They are curious and want to get to the truth. The more we can work with them, the more likely they are to listen and include your perspective or that of your PR client.

Melissa Daly is the founder and president of MFD Communications, a firm which focuses on developing, honing and communicating clients’ key messages to stakeholders. Melissa provides messaging, media training and presentation coaching for clients in a range of business sectors, as well as academia, law and professional services firms. Prior to starting MFD in 2011, Melissa was Vice President, Corporate Communications at Goldman Sachs beginning at the height of the financial crisis. There she was responsible for communications for Goldman’s Asset Management and Private Wealth Divisions as well as Goldman’s political and lobbying activities. Prior to that she was with Brunswick Group for four years where she spearheaded its US financial services practice. Earlier in her career, she held senior communications roles at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper. Melissa is often quoted in the press discussing a variety of business and communications issues and Bloomberg calls her “a veteran Wall Street message maker.” Her broad experience spans across business sectors and continents.

Reporters’ Biggest Grievance

I asked, and they answered. My unscientific poll included senior writers and editors at well-known news organizations including newswires, top financial magazines and national newspapers. These are the very people that most PR professionals want and need to know and they are increasingly frustrated by the same familiar tactics. But one in particular stood above the rest: Sending story pitches that have absolutely nothing to do with what the journalist, or even the publication, would ever consider covering as a news story. In fact, some ideas don’t even meet the definition of news or the easier standard of being even remotely interesting.

Over the years, I have heard this complaint with varying degrees of frustration coupled with some colorful language. To a PR person, a wrong pitch may seem insignificant, but for a busy journalist who may receive dozens of these a day, it can be a huge time-waster and more than simply annoying. And following up with a phone call will not help your cause. Equally important, when sending a useless pitch, you are also diminishing your own credibility with the journalists with whom you need to have established respect. And as a result, you’re damaging your career by not putting in the work to build goodwill with the journalists who ultimately determine if you’re effective at your job. Avoiding this mistake won’t take much time and will help advance your media relationships.

Read the Publication: The aforementioned journalists tell me that they constantly get press releases and pitches that are so distant from their audience that they question whether or not the PR person ever read their publication. There is a big difference between having an idea of what a publication covers and its intended audience and actually knowing what reporters are writing. Journalists are almost begging their PR counterparts to simply take a moment to read their publication. You’re trying to make a professional connection. That’s impossible if you don’t put in the time to understand the journalist’s area of expertise and his or her audience.

Identify Relevant Reporters: While you are reading your intended publication, take note of those who write about issues and topics important to your firm or client. Each publication has its own hierarchy and at times there are topics that get assigned. But for the most part, the by-line that you see would be the best person to start with when sending out your pitch. Editors will write but they should not be your first and frequent recipient of your emails. If you decide to hit send, be sure that the story idea or news event would be something of specific interest to the person on the receiving end.

Make the Pitch Clear, and Brief: Ok, you have the right publication, the right reporter and feel that your announcement, news, story idea, or white paper would have no better home. Reporters simply do not have enough time to read every press release and white paper that is sent to them. They have mastered the art of a quick scan on items that will pique their interest, but for the most part, they may miss what is most compelling because it is buried on page 5 of what you sent to them. Keep your pitch to the point and sort through your own information to show them what will be news or noteworthy to their readers. Presenting the media with a pitch that is easy to understand, gets to the point and justifies being sent to that reporter will go a long way in building long-term relationships and increase the chances of your emails being opened at all. In short, you have to think like a journalist, not only what interests them but how they convey information. You need get their attention early in your pitch.

Aligning the perfect pitch won’t always land a story, but your chances of having the media actually read or listen to you in the future will go up significantly. Consider all that journalists have to review and keep their eye on during the day and help them by giving them ideas and stories that they can use and not get sent directly to their trash.