Analysis: Dealing with the media

January 2003

by Jon Entine

Investigative journalist Jon Entine offers some tips on what to do when you find yourself in the crosshairs of the press

This is not the best of times to be a corporate executive, at least in the United States. Your collective reputation hovers somewhere between that of the Washington snipers and members of congress. As a result, any minor mis-step could find your company in the evil line of sight of our modern Cerebus: the media, activists and public officials clamouring for higher standards of business ethics, whatever that means.

On balance, that’s not such a bad thing. Recent history provides ample evidence that there are crooks out there. And even corporations with reputations for integrity contemplate every edge, occasionally even crossing over ill-defined limits of ethical propriety. The legal system isn’t designed to reign in legally hazy behaviour. That’s where forced transparency in the form of monitors such as the media have a role to play.

But the longing to find dirt in the messy reality of life, corporate life included, can result in excesses of its own. After all, corporations are dysfunctional families writ large. Problems happen. It’s inevitable. Contaminated shampoo is shipped to meet a Christmas deadline, rationalised that no one will notice or be hurt. Or a manager fires an employee and says there was cause to do so, which there may have been. No matter, for after lurid stories in the paper, the public, and later a jury, likely won’t see it that way. Or as is often the case, your company did nothing at all wrong but a righteous journalist seems intent on repainting grey into black and white.

The incipient public relations crisis can result from a screw-up, cutting corners, or out-and-out malfeasance. But no matter the cause or the ethical nuances, if the media calls, the bottom line is the same: How do you get attack-dog journalists or activists off your case? What are you to do if you find yourself in the crosshairs?

The standard recommendation often foisted on companies by eager public relation consultants is to make nice. “The worst thing you can do is to stonewall or attack the press,” one top New York PR mogul told me.

Well, from my perch as a journalist who often carries an investigator’s scalpel, I can tell you that that’s the kind of tip that might keep so-called crisis managers employed but does little to protect your company. In fact, it could do just the opposite.

“Companies tend to grant reporters the power of Supreme Court justices and believe they’re under oath to answer whatever question is posed to them,” commented Eric Dezenhall of Washington-based Nichols-Dezenhall. “No such obligation exists.”

Dezenhall, author of the take-no-prisoners Nail 'Em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities & Businesses and one of the wisest minds in the crisis management field, believes that businesses must not fall into the trap of playing by the rules set by an inquisitor whose interests are more often getting a sexy angle to a story than reaching a balanced view of a complicated reality.

“When you’re dealing with a hostile reporter, good coverage isn’t your goal. Less bad coverage is your goal. Most corporations don’t get that; they’re looking for shamans and gurus that can spin them out of catastrophe, something that only works in the movies. Always remember that a good reporter is like a Hollywood producer – he knows how the story ends. The only way to turn a hostile story is if you can provide a better ending. Not all co-operation helps the cause.”

Of course Dezenhall is absolutely right. I am continuously flabbergasted by the ineptitude of companies when faced with aggressive and potentially hostile press. The subjects of my stories invariably believe they are innocent or at worst have not committed the kind of “corporate crime” that deserves journalistic attention.

Usually, they are filled with themselves (too much corporate Kool Aid) but sometimes they are right. The media, like the rest of the world, are filled with zealots and ideologues. But in the end, the facts behind a particular crisis rarely matter. When you as an executive do not control the final product – remember it’s the reporter who writes the script – less can be more.

So, what are you to do when a Jon Entine calls? Here are eight tips about dealing with the media when facing a crisis:

• Managing your reputation and that of your company is Job One. Avoid the temptation to co-operate unless it’s at least in part on your terms. If it’s an investigation of a rumoured problem, don’t return the call unless the reporter agrees to spell out what she knows. Reporters are sly by nature and often float scenarios. It could just be a fishing expedition. Don’t throw live bait.

• Don’t publicly denigrate critics, whether dissident employees, watchdog groups, or journalists. Contentious responses escalate into “he said/she said” circuses, supplanting the original agony to become a far bigger headache.

• Don’t confess to sins that you don’t believe you committed to portray yourself as sympathetic. That just whets your adversaries’ appetite and compounds problems, especially if you are (relatively) innocent.

• Don’t expect those you consider friends in the press to stand by you, particularly if you show any defensiveness. Professional friendships have limits and are sometimes a ploy by journalists to keep your guard down and information flowing.

• When you meet the press, try to do so in a controlled environment. Style counts. Don’t flog yourself or be shrill, but do tell your side. If you’re in the right, the truth will more than likely come out over time.

• Apply a tourniquet to the negative publicity. Announce that you take the problem seriously. Then take it seriously, even if you think the issue is non-existent or overblown. Whether it was a real problem before, it certainly is a reputation management issue now that the press has it. Consider any inquiry a “wake up call”. Have you lost touch with customers, employees or managers? Find out.

• Keep lines of communication open. If a solution is complicated and cannot be addressed satisfactorily in one briefing, keep everyone informed about your progress. Don’t be afraid to admit that you made a mistake or that the proposed solution is itself caught in snags.

• Don’t lie. Silence is far less consequential than lack of candour. Duplicity will come back to haunt you. Although we as journalists are loathe to confess this, we often will abandon the pursuit of uncooperative subjects or complicated stories, but we will go to the ends of the earth to confront those who we have come to believe are hypocrites.

I can offer one paramount piece of advice. The media is relatively gentler on those who openly admit they screwed up. It’s disarming. Although we may not become your friend, we will at least contemplate that you have a conscience. That realisation alone can be the difference between a hostile story and one that respects the sometimes-complicated choices an executive faces when handling a crisis.

Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

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