Crisis Management: Alert – Reporters may race to break your story first: Understanding the media
The CEO – a client – was apoplectic. “How could this be happening,” he asked? A reporter was about to embarrass him: a journalist he knew on a first-name basis whose motivations he thought he understood. The reporter was proceeding full tilt to print a story two days early that would preempt and perhaps derail an important announcement concerning the CEO’s company. The executive’s pleas to the reporter and his editor to delay were for naught. Like it or not, the article would appear in a major daily newspaper the next morning.
That surprise triggered a race by the rest of us to protect the company’s news conference from being rendered obsolete. I immediately released other reporters from their embargo on the announcement. Thus we avoided their inevitable resentment had the newspaper pre-empted them. So, we salvaged the announcement, albeit a bit early, and all worked out well.
What went wrong? Actually it was a simple, but potentially disastrous mistake made often by people courting press attention. The CEO overlooked a fundamental characteristic of virtually every top-notch reporter: an overpowering drive woven into the fabric of their professional personality. It is……..
I must break the story first!
Most reporters believe that a scoop demonstrates how good they are. All of us want to triumph in our occupations, and, in journalism, a news beat is a touchdown, homerun, and triple-somersault-with-a-twist rolled into one. Conversely, reporting an event along with everyone else is like kissing your brother or sister. There is no joy in a tie. Forget finishing second. This isn’t the racetrack. It’s win: no place, no show.
Well then, just how hard will reporters push for first? A story.
Years ago, while reporting on a local county government, I learned of a bold – and secret – plan to end a looming water shortage. The county commission chairman wanted to tap a pristine sparkling river in an adjacent county. He proposed piping the precious liquid alongside a highway into one of his reservoirs. The chairman took a photographer and me to the spot where he hoped to siphon water from the river and we prepared our exclusive story, our scoop.
Enter my competitor at another TV station. He learned of my coming report on the water quest, but he could not find out which river. My sources protected me and would not tell him. He had half the story, but that was as good as whole as far as he was concerned.
That night on the six o’clock news I broke my exclusive on the river siphoning plan. Simultaneously, on the other newscast, my competitor announced his exclusive on a siphoning plan from an entirely different rivernot far away: the wrong river. Unable to get all the facts, but unwilling to concede the breaking news to me, he simply guessed which of the county’s two main rivers was the target. Gambling on a 50-50 chance of being right, he guessed the facts rather than come in second and was wrong. (Ultimately officials and residents of the adjacent county, astonished at the plan to use their river, torpedoed the effort into political oblivion.)
Now that you know of reporters’ will to win, some tips to avoid being a victim of it:
1. Be careful asking reporters to sit on significant stories.
The CEO’s specific mistake referred to at the beginning of this column was to alert one reporter to our news conference two days before the event. He believed he could count on the reporter to sit on the story. In fact the reporter quickly recognized that he had 48 hours to piece together an article before everyone else got it. The aggressive journalist did exactly what I used to do, and found a way to jump the story. That was terrific for the reporter, but it nearly turned our announcement into old news – sure death for press coverage. All because we notified a reporter too early.
2. Don’t promise an exclusive unless you can deliver it.
When the appropriate time came to notify all of the press about this same event, I ran smack into one legitimately angry reporter. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, a different executive had promised him an “exclusive” although he was in no position to do so. By then it was too late and I could not honor the other person’s pledge. We needlessly antagonized a journalist we would certainly need in the future. (I later assured that reporter that we would look for a way to give him something new that no one else had.) This error leads to the next tip.
3. Choose only one person to contact reporters.
As much as everyone wants to get into the act (and in this case all of the participants were excited), eliminate confusion and misunderstanding by designating only one person to contact the press.
4. Loose lips lead to leaks.
Executives eager about an upcoming event and approached by routinely curious reporters occasionally hint broadly that a special story is on the horizon. While they are indeed stoking the journalistic appetite, they are also baiting competitive reporters into digging to learn what is happening and to report the story on their terms, not yours. Furthermore, the more people who know about your “secret,” the more who are likely to “blab” and set off the scoopsters.
5. Feed the “lions” all at once.
Look upon reporters as a pride of hungry lions. To avoid setting off a feeding frenzy, serve all of them with your information simultaneously. None will be ecstatic, but all will be content.
Exception. Sometimes favoring a particular reporter or news operation with an exclusive may be in your best interest. That’s fine, but remember that in exchange for that one big story you could get little or no coverage elsewhere. The rest of the pride may not settle for being second. On the other hand, if your announcement is big enough, everyone will take a bite regardless who got there first.