Media Relations – Play up, and play the game

Read an article recently in which a senior journalist had things to say about how corporate communicators should deal with the media – in particular, journalists like him.

His moan, for such it was, was couched in an example of a ‘colleague’ of his – why does this smack of someone asking a doctor’s advice about an embarrassing problem on behalf of a ‘friend’ – who had turned down the opportunity to have dinner with the CEO of a company because the CEO’s PR advisor was going to be there, thus the CEO would be unlikely to (and I’m paraphrasing) go off-message or reveal anything other than the corporate line. 

This then led into a further discourse on how inappropriate it was to hold these dinners, as well as how unsatisfactory it is to hold round table briefings (for the reason that journalists are unlikely to ask their best questions in front of their peers) and, by implication, how useless a series of one-to-one interviews on the day of announcement is, for the same reasons that dinners are such a rubbish idea.

The moral of the story, if such it is, is that corporate communicators should allow journalists free and unfettered access to their senior people, in order to build relationships and foment fuller understanding of the companies and organisations that they represent. What was left unsaid was that in this way, a better type of coverage would be forthcoming and what was dangled, as a golden apple on a gilded branch, was the unspoken possibility that you (the corporate communicator) to might achieve the sort of rapport with the media that one only reads about. (In the media, oddly enough.)

The sort of rapport that allows you – like Ed Balls recently – to persuade a national daily (yes, The Telegraph) to hold back a story (in this case, about your rival) and publish it (in this case, when most damaging to that rival, and) when most appropriate to your hopes.

I thought about this long and hard – I’ve done my fair share of dinners and lunches and hospitality and round tables and one-to-ones, and, in fairness, I’m not a great fan of any of it – but eventually, there’s only one conclusion to be reached.

This is but another salvo in the ongoing war between corporate communicators and the media and serves, vividly, to highlight quite how little things have moved on since the first person tried to act as broker between a body corporate and the media (and, again in fairness, to attempt to manipulate the media to his or her ends).

The fact of the matter is that we (as corporate communicators) are here to protect our clients’ interests – generally corporate reputation and shareholder value, amongst other stuff – and the media are there to find stories which they deem to be in the public interest. Lest we be in any doubt, for ‘stories’ read ‘news’. Thus, we realise that they are never going to write or broadcast ‘such and such company is just brilliant, isn’t it?’ and they get very upset when we ask them to. This much is understood.

What they – and it is ‘them’ and ‘us’, I’m afraid, always has been, always will be – want is something that they can have for themselves, which no-one else has and which reveals something new about the subject of their interest. OK, this can be a new product, or initiative, or investment – but more often than not, and like it or not – what they’re looking for is something contrary to the company/organisation’s persona. This is why they want to get the CEO alone – just in case, in an unguarded moment, he makes an off-the-cuff, or reveals a little about what it is that’s been keeping him awake for the last two weeks.

And it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why we’re there at the dinner. That’s why we do speaking notes and media briefs and key messages and Q&A. That’s what we do – make sure that the off-the-cuff remark doesn’t happen and that newsflow is controlled.

Sure, there’s an argument that says if there is bad news, or if you are hiding something, then people (shareholders, consumers) should know about it. The counter-aqrgument says that they shouldn’t learn about it through the media as a result of an unplanned and not-terribly detailed (and probably hastily withdrawn) comment from the CEO. 

So – if it’s taken as read that they (the media) are (in the majority of cases) going to have to meet the senior bods in the company of their PR people – well, there’s a choice. You either do, or you don’t. And if you want to meet these guys and want to build a rapport with them, then I’d suggest you do. Incidentally, I’ve done hundreds of these things and I don’t believe in telling my bod what to say. I’m there simply to keep a record of what was said – and, I guess, butt in if it’s really, really wide of the mark. Advice to ‘them’ though – the amount of times I’ve gone to great lengths to convince a senior guy to do this, and you turn up, and you know nothing about the company and what it’s doing……….

So, there you have it, do it, or don’t do it. But accept it. It’s the game and we’ve been playing it forever and I really do not see this changing, as long as ‘them’ and ‘us’ have different agendas. Which we do, before anyone says that we’re two sides of the same coin.

And in terms of the dreaded media round-table and the horrific round of one-to-ones? No, you’re right, they’re crap. But (I don’t have to tell you this) the news agenda is such that, on the day of a big announcement, to meet everyone’s needs, you sometimes do not have a choice.

The senior journalist whose thoughts started me off on this rant (see top of the post if you’ve forgotten already – wouldn’t blame you) either thinks that we have all the time in the world to do separate and individual meetings and prepare separate and individual storylines (which we obviously don’t) or that we should choose one media outlet (clearly, his media outlet) over others.

This is blatantly ridiculous – if you want to reach the widest audience possible, then you have to try and get your story into the widest variety of media possible. This much is clear. Bottom line is that I’ve held media roundtables successfully and my invited guests have all got a story out of it – yes, they all said they’d prefer not to, but it didn’t stop them coming and – in truth – the more expert amongst them rode on the back of the others’ questions to develop a bigger story than they might otherwise have got.

And finally, the golden carrot held out as a potential reward for letting your guard down and giving the journalist unrestricted access. That Holy Grail, that Nirvana, the hotline to the top – the strength of relationship that allows you to control the media (I think a loud ‘Mwaahahaha! Ahahahahahaha! HAAAAAhahahahaha!’ would be appropriate at this point).

Sorry. Ain’t never going to happen. Throughout my career, I have come up against people who have said that they had these relationships. Not once have I seen it work. It didn’t work for Ed Balls recently – you see The Telegraph only ‘held back’ part of the story and it was too little too late. It didn’t work for an ex-boss of mine – ‘I know the CEO of the Daily Mail Trust!’ – excellent, have a cigar, sit down, shut up.

Why doesn’t it work? Well, it goes back to this ‘news’ thing. News is something that, by definition, no-one else has (otherwise it wouldn’t be new). News is what sells papers. News is what journalists get paid for. If a journalist has news, he or she is going to get it out there. And even if they want to hold it back, their editor will put it out there.

News does not respect relationships and news has no friends. Show me someone who says they control the news agenda and, unless they are the editor of a daily newspaper, Rupert Murdoch or the controller of the BBC, I will show you a charlatan.

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