Response to Jon Entine Interview

It's the Best "Do's and Don'ts" List in Last 10 Years!

by Wes Pedersen
Public Affairs Council

Jon Entine's advice on handling a potentially hostile journalist ought to be mounted, framed and hung for ready reference near the desk of every corporate public affairs and public relations officer. It just may be the most concise, to the point list of do's and don'ts published on the subject in at least the last 10 years.

That said, I offer a few personal observations.

Entine tells us" "Reporters are not the enemy. They may not let you off the hook easily, but they're very sympathetic to executives who are candid and show a human side." True, but while that newsman you've been chatting up over lunch or dinner may not be your enemy, he is not your friend, either. Journalism was a relatively benign "game" before Watergate: it's a blood sport now, with news hounds ever ready for fresh kill. Your reporter "pal" will nail you if he senses a potential headline, and he'll do it with relish if he feels you're trying to con him. Be on your best behavior with him, but never expect favors when he's on the trail of a story.

And don't confide in him. The "I thought what I said was off the record" excuse won't warrant forgiveness from anyone if embarrassing or confidential information you've blurted out gets aired or into print. In his just published book, I Was There, former House Republican leader John Rhodes tells of turning "livid" after being snookered "in a social moment" by ABC-TV's Sam Donaldson. It was August 8, 1974, and he had invited Donaldson into his Capitol hideaway for a drink. Donaldson left to report on-air that Rhodes had confirmed that Nixon would resign shortly (and did the next day). Donaldson, of course, denies there was anything unethical about the way he got his scoop. He told the Washington Post last month (January 17, 1996) that "I felt free to report what I did because there were no ground rules."

Here's something else to keep in mind: Never fall into the trap of thinking you're smarter than the reporter. Those in today's crop are better educated than ever; they do their homework, and they know far more about business than any previous generation. Talk down to a reporter and you're in trouble. It's human nature to want to cut a smartass down a notch or two when the opportunity arises. And remember that the "dumb" reporter who seems to be getting what you're telling him "all mixed up" may be stringing you along, hoping that you will be so determined to "straighten him out" that you will tell more than you perhaps should.

It's bad business to try to duck a reporter or to try to shunt him off onto an underling. You're sending all the wrong signals — that you think you're too important to be bothered by him, that you don't feel you're capable of handling his queries on your own, and/or that you have something to hide. Take his or her call, be candid without giving away the combination to your files, don't let yourself became flustered, don't snap, don't yell, and don't cave. If you've known in advance that a particular issue might draw media attention, you should have been thoroughly briefed and ready — now — for possible confrontation.

At the very least, you should have made sure that a member of your team is thoroughly "up" on the program, so that you'll be able to turn the reporter over to a subordinate, explaining that the staffer is the point man on the issue, but that you'll still be available if he encounters a problem. By then, the journalist will feel that he's gotten a fair shake from the top and won't be likely to chafe at being passed on to someone else.

For clues to the care and handling of determined reporters, you can't beat Call the Briefing!, Marlin Fitzwater's recollections of a decade spent defending two Presidents, Reagan and Bush, against the pride of the Fourth Estate — as in "pride of lions." Though he does admire many who were in the White House press corps in those days, Fitzwater makes clear his dislike for others who resorted to connivance and subterfuge to "get the story." The lessons taught him by the duplicitous are worth pondering by even experienced hands entrusted with "media relations," in business as well as politics.

Wes Pedersen is Director of Communications and Public Relations for the Washington-based Public Affairs Council, the national professional association for corporate public affairs executives. A former editor and reporter, his column The World Today, distributed by the U.S. Information Agency, appeared in newspapers around the world. His books include Legacy of a President, an international bestseller on JFK. He is on the editorial advisory boards of Public Relations Quarterly and PR News.