Crisis Management: Reporters aren’t the problem – You may be!: Understanding the media
How often have you and your associates griped about reporters and the trouble they cause? Probably more than a few times. There’s something fundamentally American about criticizing the press. However,this harmless exercise can be dangerous if you are the target of a determined reporter. You run the real risk of focusing on the wrong issue, and making your life even worse. Look at what almost happened to an out-of-state client!
This new president of a publicly funded institution was trying to rebuild an effective organization in the midst of a controversy while, to her dismay, a reporter dogged almost every move with articles criticizing her operation. Furthermore, the journalist 1) flooded her subordinates with requests for copies of documents, 2) called employees at home, 3) staked out offices, and 4) even told staff members how to act in their own best interests. The series of stories raised doubts in the community. The journalistic snooping troubled the staff. Unfounded rumors prodded by the articles demoralized many.
The president was particularly aggravated that the reporter seemed to ignore deficiencies at similar institutions in the region. They seemed to get a free ride while she and her colleagues took it on the chin. Especially humiliating was the reporter’s inclination to use these competitors as examples of good contrasted with her organization’s failures. Her staff obsessed over what the reporter would probe next and how they should respond.
Meantime, being a community leader, the president knew some of the reporter’s bosses in management. She was plotting how to persuade the hierarchy to pull this nagging reporter off her back. That’s where the situation stood when I got involved.
I convinced the president to pull the plug on this scheme, but it wasn’t easy. After all, the journalist was pushing the ethical envelope especially when giving professional advice to individuals she was covering. She also had a personal tie to the institution that raised doubts about her motivation.
Nevertheless, this executive had to understand that the reporter’s actions – and this is important – were mostly consistent with what managers should expect from the press.
Reporter behavior is predictable.
People routinely complain to me about how much better their company, institution, or government agency could function without aggressive negatively-oriented reporters. They insist that capricious media disrupt their efforts.
I argue that reporters are less arbitrary than they are predictable. To wit, they are:
- Predictably a nuisance if you rely on public support or good will.
- Predictably unconcerned with your professional interests.
- Predictably disinterested in your reputation.
- Predictably interested in your critics.
- Predictably simplistic explaining the complex.
- Predictably focused on what you consider to be the wrong issue.
- Predictably inaccurate… anti-business… liberal… ignorant about your operation… and unfair – from your perspective.
This is important for you to understand, because it begs this critical question – “If the actions of the press are predictable, then why do some companies and institutions get more constructive news coverage in times of trouble than others do? Its because the actions of companies vary, while the moves of reporters are constant. Reporters keep doing the same old thing. Companies and organizations run the gamut in their responses to challenging situations.
Companies are the variable.
The actions of the companies and the institutions – not the media – are where the rubber hits the road. Companies that act and respond well tend to do well, or at least better, in news stories. Those that do not continue to fuel the media engine that seems to consume them. This means that when it comes to problem-solving, your focus should not be on what the reporter is doing, but on what you are doing.
Solve the problem, don’t “shoot” the reporter.
Remember two critically important goals of yours when your business is the subject of controversial news coverage. 1) News audiences want to know ”Am I safe.” “Am I (and people like me) personally and economically going to be okay?” 2) Your duty with your words and your deeds is to reassure members of your audience that you are acting in their best interests and to make them as safe as possible. Again, your mission is not to worry about what the reporter is doing, but what you are doing.
In the case of my client mentioned at the beginning of this article. I convinced the president to build rapport with the reporter and focus all efforts on resolving the controversy that faced her. That is now happening. Problems are being solved. News stories are more constructive. I trust that increased public support will follow.
Final note – the danger of trying to derail a reporter
Let us suppose that instead of correcting her problems, my client had convinced news managers that one of their reporters was vindictive, unfair, and destructive. They replaced the reporter covering her institution. Her operation moved forward without the carping journalist. Let’s suppose that a previously undetected problem of hers surfaces. Perhaps a reporter from another news operation uncovers it. Now what do you suppose the news managers that were convinced to yank the reporter will do now? Does the phrase “ton of bricks”, as in “they will come down our her head like…,” mean something to you? Hell hath no fury like that of a newspaper on a mission. She would have put her organization in the cross-hairs and the reporters’ finger on trigger.
Fix your problems. Let the reporters do their job.