Media relations (or press relations) involves risks and consequences that can quickly derail any career, either as a corporate executive or PR agency rep. A misquote can sink a company’s stock price. An innocent “puff piece” can turn out to be an exposé that embarrasses your CEO. An insensitive comment on camera can spark a customer boycott.
Over the course of my career – as an in-house staff member, and as a PR flack for hire – I’ve received several permanent scars, while attempting to generate positive coverage, and while defending against negative reporting. Some of those media scars have been self-inflicted; others were caused by journalists who often play by their own set of rules.
Here are four lessons I’ve learned from working with the press:
1. A Reporter Can Never Be a Trusted Friend.
As spokesperson for the Options Division of the American Stock Exchange, I frequently spoke with a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who covered news related to the Chicago Board Options Exchange. At that time, the CBOE had a significantly greater number of options listings compared with the Amex, but a small number of listings were traded on both exchanges. He considered the competition for market share involving those few listings to be newsworthy.
Our weekly conversations were always friendly. Discussion topics ranged from baseball to poetry, and always ended with him asking me for a comment about market share, with me declining. After several months of weekly conversations, and having exchanged college exploits and family details, I considered this reporter a friend. Tired of declining to comment on his market share issue so many times, I finally said to him one day, “Why do you keep asking me that same dumb question? The CBOE is so much larger than the Amex, and the CBOE only trades options, so why is that a story?” He laughed and we hung up.
The next day, I was summoned to the Amex President’s office. He threw a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times in my lap. The headline of the business section read: AMEX OFFICIAL ADMITS CBOE SUPERIORITY. I expected to be fired on the spot, but instead (and to my great relief) he told me, “Don’t ever let that happen again.” I’ve never forgotten the lesson to always expect to see whatever you say (and sometimes things you didn't say) in print. Nor have I forgotten my boss’s benevolence.
2. Some Reporters Have Personal Agendas
While representing a major chain of food stores as outside PR counsel, I brought in a Forbes reporter in hopes of having her write a company profile. The food chain had been doing very well, had an interesting story, and there was no negative news associated with the company. The reporter’s 2-hour interview with the CEO went very well. He answered all of her questions in a direct manner, and she did not present any questions that suggested an intention to write anything other than a positive story. The CEO winked at me on the way out the door, as if to say, “Nice job.”
Two weeks later, I picked up the phone, and the CEO screamed, “Have you seen the article in Forbes?” I said no, and he yelled, “When you read it, you’ll know why you’re fired!” He slammed down the phone.
I scrambled to get a copy of Forbes, and read what was a total hatchet job. The reporter had nothing positive to say about my client's company. My fingers trembled with anger as I dialed the reporter. She picked up, and I asked her, “How could you possible write that story?” There was a long pause, then she said, “I didn’t like the way your client treated his secretary.” Then she hung up. That experience taught me that you can never count on positive coverage. Press relations is always a crap shoot.
3. Admit When You Don’t Know the Answer
As head of public relations at a very large financial services company, I spoke on a regular basis with seasoned journalists who always knew far more than I did about complex, arcane topics. I received a call one day from a Wall Street Journal reporter regarding a press release we had just issued involving a stock split. He asked me a question that I didn’t really understand, but my ego did not allow me to admit to him that I didn’t know the correct answer. His question was simple, requiring me to select one of two possible responses. Playing the odds, I picked one, hoping it was correct.
The next morning, in a flashback from my Amex days, the firm’s CEO walked into my office with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, asking who had spoken with the reporter who covered the stock split. I had picked the wrong response to the reporter’s question, and the error had been published. For a second time, I was lucky to keep my job, but groveled in the follow-up call to the reporter, asking for a clarification in the next issue. I’ve never made that same mistake, and now consider admission of ignorance a badge of courage.
4. A Reporter's Ego Can Derail Fair Coverage
While representing a new advertising agency, I arranged an interview for the agency co-founders with a well-known New York Times columnist who covered their industry. My clients were elated at the prospect of being featured in such a respected, widely read column. But when the story appeared, some of the key facts regarding the agency were reported incorrectly.
I assured my clients that the columnist would print a clarification in his next column. I called him, and introduced myself, to which he responded, “I know why you’re calling me. And if you push for a clarification, I will never cover your client in my column again.” Offsetting this unpleasant incident, I've also had experiences with well-known journalists, including Dan Rather, who've kept their positions and egos from affecting their professionalism.
In media relations you learn to expect surprises, and to roll with the punches. Career risk notwithstanding, you have the potential to educate target audiences, to shape opinion, and to create positive outcomes for your company or client. When those good things happen, the hard lessons you've learned and the scars you accumulated all seem worthwhile.