An often-heard maxim in Washington is, “never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” A former Indiana Congressman is credited with this now-timeless quip, but it has become a lazy justification for a false binary choice: either gear-up for regular fights with the press or just let it all go.
That kind of limited thinking and all-or-nothing attitude is a little too Wild West for an era that demands more content on tighter deadlines from journalists, and more collaboration—not confrontation—from communicators and PR pros. Confrontation is part of the game, but it can be done right.
Consider these steps before jumping headlong into a battle with the press or rolling over at every instance of media malpractice.
Take a Breather
Take a page out of President Lincoln’s playbook and master the art of the unsent angry letter. Consider it your therapy and let it rip. The point is, don’t pull a Meg Ryan in the late-90s hit, You’ve Got Mail, and say the exact (nasty) thing you want to say, at the exact moment you want to say it. It had minimal effect on her fairytale outcome with Tom Hanks but you won’t fare as well.
Do Due Diligence
Before firing off an angry email or Tweet, take the time to gather your team and examine the facts. Conduct a rundown of how the unfavorable news item came to be. Some considerations should be:
- Was there anything factually wrong with the story. This will often be the first question the reporter asks.
- Was your organization contacted for comment on the story? If so, what was the nature of the response, if any? Were you able to meet agreed-upon deadlines? If not, was there an affiliate organization contacted or quoted?
- Was there any attempt to maintain balance and present multiple sides of the story (including yours)?
- Was this an opinion piece or positioned as a hard news story?
- What is the main source of consternation for you and your team?
- Who is the reporter(s) and what type of outlet do they work for?
- Who was the story produced for? Are they a part of your key audience(s)?
Make Your Move
In no way are the above questions a full and complete list of where your exact situation will lead you. But I promise, when SevenTwenty masters the feat of providing a custom rubric for every potential sticky situation you may encounter with the media, we’ll make some noise.
The point is, the answers to many of those questions will help your team make a better decision on how to respond, if you choose to respond at all. If you have a legitimate gripe, then it’s time you consider options for rebuttal.
Start With a Conversation
Contact the reporter via email first. If it’s urgent, give it a bit of time and leave a calm and professional voicemail. Don’t be tempted to project any stress or frustration, even if you’re feeling it, in your initial communication. Remember, you’re trying to open a line of communication to gain a better understanding if your presumptions are still on-point.
Try, Try, and Try Again
It’s hard to say which way the direction your conversation will go and even more depends on the magnitude of your ask. But do your best to stay measured. Be prepared to elevate your inquiry to management. If that is a hill you want to climb, be certain you’re calm, factual with your grievance, and reasonable with your ask. (If you’re unsure of the response tools available to your organization, SevenTwenty can build a custom toolbox for your organization).
Bottom-line: explore every avenue outside the public square to reach both a level of mutual understanding and a feeling of resolution. More often than not, an agreement of sorts is reached and the way forward is clear, whether that’s a retraction (rare), a correction, a follow-up story, a letter to the editor or some other resolution.
Activate Your Network
Of course, sometimes your efforts will fail. Other times, the outcome is so cumbersome that impending damage necessitates a dual approach: initiate internal communications to leverage your organizational influencers and continue to backchannel with the greatest sense of urgency.
Activate your organization’s network and influencers with a call to action via an email campaign or social media blitz. Provide resources like sample talking points and hashtags. Brevity is king and make sure your audience is absolutely clear on what they’re asking the reporter and/or outlet to do.
One of the best examples of this came from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). They leveraged all the communications tools available to them in an effort to bring balance to a one-sided news story. Ultimately, the local television station pulled their story and thanked those who raised objections for doing so.
The key: they kept it civil, professional and unemotional. Just because you organized your efforts within a social network or other e-community, doesn’t mean you ought to abandon decorum and hide behind its veils of distance and/or anonymity.
Skirmishes Can Be Healthy
As you can see in the example above, the station admitted their mistake, made a commendable statement, pulled their story, and everyone moved on. I can tell you from personal experience, that the Nurse Practitioners and that station are more familiar with one another, the lines of communication are open and each party is receptive to the other.
Not every skirmish with a media outlet or reporter will end badly. Not every skirmish will lead to barrels of ink dedicated to your organization’s downfall—and that’s the biggest takeaway here.
There will always be self-inflated, high-minded, egotistical and downright unpleasant journalists. Heck, those people exist in every profession, even in PR. But operating on the assumption that every tough conversation you have with a journalist will turn poorly is not only counterproductive to your organization’s cause but ignorant of the potential positive relationship that can grow from a less-than-ideal situation.
It’s okay to quarrel with ink buyers. Just take a breath, do your research and be ready to act.