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Media and Crisis Management

Fix it, don’t fight with reporters

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Fix it, don’t fight with reportersCrisis response/Understanding the media

When a federal appeals court ruling overturned Food Lion’s multi-million dollar verdict against ABC in the 1990’s it provided one more reason to follow this crisis management maxim: “When trouble puts your reputation in peril, don’t fight with reporters, fix your problem.”

Food Lion’s initial win was based on proving that ABC personnel lied to get inside jobs to produce stories questioning food-handling safety. The grocery chain did not directly challenge the ABC story’s truthfulness. The appellate court’s reversal of that win said that Food Lion had attempted an “end run around First Amendment strictures…”

The practical lesson of the ruling is that if you want to sue a news gatherer, you should challenge the falsity or maliciousness of the story, not the manner in which the reporter put the story together.

Let me elaborate. In my opinion, if you want to get out of the headlines, don’t attack reporter tactics and judgment, change the condition that put you on the front page in the first place.

I have said this before and am repeating it again because I keep encountering this issue in my crisis management practice. I have to spend much time reorienting clients who are complaining that reporters are making their lives a living hell.

I once flew to another state to help a client overcome a major embarrassment. On arrival, the first three hours – three hours – were consumed convincing the management team that their strategy should not revolve around getting a particular reporter off their backs. Once they began addressing the problems that made them press fodder, media scrutiny subsided and the client and the reporter actually returned to speaking terms.

Believe me, I understand the desire to kill the messenger. My blood boils when a client works hard to correct a deficiency, only to see that effort negated by an unfairly aggressive or careless reporter. And reporters do screw up. (I still remember and regret every personal misstep in my journalism years.) And when you have been legitimately wronged, you should confront them, usually privately. However, most media complaints have more to do with nuance, semantics, headlines, and not outright error. Furthermore, real blunders tend to be isolated, not protracted. (It is a safe bet that if you are consistently portrayed in a negative light over time, there must be some genuine grist for the media mill.)

I suggest that reporters will be reporters and you will not change that. It is mostly beyond your control. Therefore, work on what is within your power.

For example, I had a client facing a potential public embarrassment. There were two basic choices: (1) make unpopular changes internally to avoid possible negative and unrepresentative press coverage, or (2) make no changes, keep peace internally, and endure any public outcry. The client chose (1). The reasoning was that it was easier to manage internal difficulties than to handle any external blistering that might follow if nothing were done. It turned out to be a good choice. The controversial inside correction avoided a public fight.

Most people bristle at the idea that reporters can do what they bloody well please and get away with it. To some degree that is right. It is the price we pay for an unfettered press. However, news organizations are accountable to the public. If they sufficiently offend the sensibilities of most of their consumers, they feel the backlash and often respond.

  • Several years ago NBC Sports reporter Jim Gray was compelled to a public apology for his – I think – poorly timed and intrusive interview of former baseball star Pete Rose about gambling just minutes after Rose had been honored in prime time for being one of the century’s best players.
  • The Globe tabloid once returned to authorities autopsy photographs of dead Jon Benet Ramsey when readers erupted in outrage after the newspaper printed a few of the photos.
  • In the 70’s, viewers blasted a television station in this area after a reporter showed needlessly graphic scenes following a suicide off a bank building in North Carolina. (Although I didn’t do the story, someone pinned me to the wall in an elevator to complain about the insensitivity of our coverage.)
  •  Two final points:
  • Reporters can inflict far more pain on you, than you on them, when you are not doing your best to correct your own problems.
  • The public will tend to believe the reporters more than they believe you.

Therefore, fix it! That will give you something positive to say to the journalists whom you believe are out to get you.

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