Five media myths exploded for PR professionals

June 1, 2011
people with question mark signs

Where does this stuff come from? The unwritten rules of PR that surface again and again, but often have no basis in fact. So here, after 25 years of experience, let me share with you some of the greatest myths of media relations and the truth in back of them.

1. Never say no comment. On the whole, that might hold true. But years ago, I was working on a major acquisition for a client. It was all hush, hush, cloak-and-dagger stuff of late-night calls from halfway around the world. The media got wind of it and called the CEO, who turned the call over to me.

I was young at the time and fully ingrained in the prevailing wisdom — to never say no comment. The CEO was firm. He screamed at me to tell them no comment. I explained that the cardinal rule of PR is that no comment just creates enemies with the media and lets the media tell their own story. At least we could put together a non-committal response, I urged.

The CEO bellowed from halfway around the world. “Nothing I do is non-committal. The world will respect us more for not talking now and then telling the full story at a time and place of our convenience.”

He was right. I said no comment. The media frenzy built in the days and weeks that followed. We leveraged the interest into a front page Wall Street Journal story. All because of a stone wall the media desperately wanted to climb over, and eventually did, but on our terms at a time right for the client.

2. The media play by prescribed rules. They don’t. I learned that fact when I was representing Jeff Lurie when he purchased the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994. The media were rabid to get to him. He was holed up far from the madness of the Philadelphia media. A phone call came from a big-time national TV reporter. He was livid. Screaming. Told me I was finished in the business. “Why?” I asked.

“Because I traveled all the way to Los Angeles to interview your client and he tells me you killed the interview.” I assured him I hadn’t killed the interview. Didn’t even know about it. He kept coming. “Why would you ever waste my time flying to Los Angeles, if he’s not doing the interview?”

Finally, I broke. “I didn’t kill your interview and I don’t know why you are in Los Angeles.” With that he laughed. “I am not in Los Angeles. I was just trying to get you to tell me where in the world he is. Guess it’s not L.A.”

3. Just ask. Somehow there’s a notion that the press won’t share with you what they have on your client, the good or the bad. A few years ago, I was working on a high-stakes story with a government contractor client of ours. There were lots of false allegations and suggestions I was defending when a national consumer reporter called.

He was hot on the story and ready to take it national. I got on the phone. First thing out of my mouth, “Hey, John, what do you know, who have you spoken to, and what questions need answered?” With that, he shared with me every incriminating alleged fact he had collected.

He went on and on. Gave me his whole game plan for the story … all because I asked. With that, I knew exactly what defense to project. We countered each claim with independent experts and research. The story, while still harsh, had a counterpoint to each allegation dampening down any damage.

4. Negotiate for the world, and sometimes you will end up with a state the size of Texas. The story was awful. An full out assault on my client’s business. Chocked full of hyperbole. Wrong facts. The reporter saw it as a career stepping stone. Take on one of the country’s most powerful real estate developers, make some noise, and win employee of the month in the newsroom.

We spent hours documenting each mistake of fact. The client then told me, “I want another article of equal length, this time with my side of the story. I don’t want a retraction. I don’t want a correction. I want to have the same impact this article had on my business, only this time, to the positive.”

I began, “But that’s impossible. These are mistakes of fact. The most the newspaper will do is print a correction. It’s a breach of journalist standard to write a make-up article.” The client was livid. “Why am I negotiating with you? I got here by asking for the obscene and settling for the outrageous.”

So we sat down with the editors. They agreed there were mistakes of fact, and began negotiations by offering to print corrections. I bellowed and blustered. “This article wrecks my client’s business, and the make-up is a page-10 correction?” Nervously, I shot the payload. “We want the same front page exposure, but this time the right story.”

The editors weren’t about to give or admit the suggestion was even worth considering. They called it unethical, if I remember correctly. Then, walking out, the editor turned me by my shoulder. “Keep me updated on any news. I will help.” A month later, there it was. A front page story about a tier-two project my client was developing in another state, written in glowing, reverential terms.

5. The media is all a bunch of liberal intellectuals, especially that New York Times. Not so fast. Years ago, a client came to us with a hearing aide, specifically designed for hunters. It had politically incorrect written all over it. And I was concerned about its in-your-face, Ted-Nugent, kill-more-deer kind of positioning.

So we carefully chose our media targets, and especially left The New York Times off the list. The client asked why. We explained it’s an East Coast newspaper that doesn’t understand hunting. It would never give you a fair shake. Still, he wanted to try. “I will take the fall out,” I remember him saying.

So off it went. The media kit in a blaze orange box with faux shot gun blasts on the side. I worried about calling the outdoor reporter. I imagined that her idea of roughing it was being without room service in the Hamptons. But I called nonetheless.

When I finally got through, she laughed and told me she had been waiting for my call. She loved the product. Tested if herself that fall during deer season, and brought down a big buck. The resulting story ran half a page, with photos of her using the product while holding up her quarry’s limp dead head. Elitist? I don’t think so.

So somewhere, someone continues to write the rules of public relations. I admit, I have at points tried to live up to them. But breaking rules has always been a part of me, and good thing. Otherwise, I would have lived a limited life of lesser service to clients who deserved so much more.

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7 years 10 months ago

Greg, this is outstanding.

Pros need to be reminded that it's okay to challenge "conventional wisdom," NOT for the same of being different, but because you have strategically put your client's best interests first.