The media are not our friends

July 1, 2010
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As PR practitioners, we often fall into the trap of believing that relationships trump all, and that by being open and transparent with the media, we stand the best chance of winning favorable coverage. But underneath it all, the media’s agenda is vastly different than our own.

Reporters are rarely promoted or rewarded for writing a positive story about a business, person, or politician. Rather, their own success often depends on exposing the negative, uncovering the wrong, and seeing the opposite in what is projected by the world.

Good thing, too. Without that skepticism, the value of public relations would be forever diminished. It’s only through the prism of objectivity that media coverage gains its power. This is precisely why the consuming public values media more than marketing. A reporter’s scrutiny confers believability. Skepticism portrays the reality of the world, and plays more authentically to the audience.

That’s often not easy for clients to understand. A few years ago, I worked with a financial services company that was profiled in The Wall Street Journal. The story was positive in every way, except for a quote from an outside analyst the reporter turned to for a counterpoint. The client went ballistic, claiming that the entire article had been impugned.

I took up the fight and explained that quite to the contrary, it was the counterpoint that gave the article its weight and legitimacy. By finding a negative, the reporter did us the favor of demonstrating objectivity, and conferred a degree of credibility we never could have achieved through simple advertising.

The client never agreed with me. We went our separate ways. Philosophically we never connected on the real power of PR as more than just a tool for exposure, but rather a vehicle for credibility in a world full of illegitimacy.

So in a world where the media are not our friends, we as PR professionals need to act accordingly, remembering:

A client’s interest trumps a media relationship. A dirty little secret of PR is that many practitioners would rather error on the side of the client, rather than alienate a media contact. But the media are big boys and girls. They understand the dance we enter into, and have short memories when you enter the arena as a worthy adversary.

No comment is sometimes the best response. It’s become a tired refrain in PR to never say “no comment.” Too often, that counsel comes from PR people who simply don’t want to alienate a media contact who they might need in the future. After decades of high-risk crisis work, I have come to realize that no comment often does more to protect the interests of a client than some half-baked empty response that nibbles at the corners of liability. No further comment.

The media love no one. This is why Gen. Stanley McChrystal got tattooed last week. He believed that if he could just bring the reporter into his world, and share with him the blood and guts (and finger-pointing) of war, the coverage would be favorable. The big egos often fall into this trap. You see it all the time in sports. Athletes believe they’re beloved by the media, and then can’t understand when the media turns on them. Tiger Woods fell victim when, during his press conference, he attacked the media for stalking him and his family. In reality, Tiger was devastated to realize that the media never loved him. He was just a story. When access was easy, the storytelling was favorable. When it became difficult, they did what they had to do to get the story. They didn’t love him. Never did.

Manage the negativity, but don’t discount it. I have used 101 techniques in my day to prevent the negative from being exposed by the media. Heck, I once holed up a Santa Clause in a hotel after he was accosted and the media wanted to report on crime in my client’s mall. But important stories have two sides. It’s the presentation of both sides that comforts the audience and opens them to a more worthy perspective.

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8 years 10 months ago

Greg, Brilliant insights on the media.

Frank Freudberg
8 years 10 months ago

Hi Greg. Another great post. I can't tell you how many friends I've made after meeting them in situations that could be termed "negative." For example, once a guy fender-bendered my car in Center City. The way he handled himself in that situation was wonderful, and we went on to become solid friends. Do you have any experience with reporters who first reported a negative story on a company, but learned more about the company and its management, and then went on to later report positive, upbeat stories on that same company?

Greg Matusky
8 years 10 months ago
Thanks for the comment, Frank. I have worked with companies to help flip a reporter or publication from negative to positive. One example dates back to the early 2000s when a large employment company came to us with the challenge to befriend a particularly important press contact who had ripped the company time and again in his coverage. The client claimed to have no idea why the reporter was so negative, but theorized it had something to do with a past interview with the CEO. We engaged the reporter in a frank conversation and learned that the riff was much… Read more »