Media Relations – What We’ve Got Here is (a) Failure to Communicate

Apologies for the title of this post – I was minded of Cool Hand Luke this morning (via a piece in the Metro, I am unashamed to admit) and The Captain’s iconic line is just too good to pass up. Sorry. Especially as it’s not really got anything to do with the topic.

Today, ladies and gents of the audience (if you’re out there – hello? Hello?) I’m continuing on from something that I posted a while ago – no, I don’t recall when, but if you’re really keen, see!

– which was about the undoubted, and ongoing, battle between us – the corporate communicators – and them – those whose living is made by news, the journalists.

And I’ll repeat myself – because I think it’s a point worth making again and again, for everyone’s benefit – a battle it is. Ever since I entered this vale of tears we call ‘spin’, the tempestuous relationship between PRO and hack has been a topic of discussion, and, as far as I can see, it always will be. No matter how many times a Julia Hobsbawm-alike tries (laudably) to encourage dialogue between the two, no matter how many times Anthony Hilton uses the pages of PR Week to lecture us on the dos and don’ts of dealing with the media, no matter how many times a trade magazine (from the Haymarket stable, since you ask) (ab)uses its blog to publicly name and shame one errant individual, the dynamic of our relationship will remain the same.

They want news that ‘sells’ their publications, we want coverage that sells our client (favourably). Sorry people, I mean, I’ve made up my mind, I’ve picked my side, but I can see (and appreciate) what the other side want and – I’m afraid – mostly it’s mutually exclusive. Oh, I recognise there are ways of back-scratching, but  the back-sctratching that gets a favourable result for both sides – while wholly innocent (in the main) – is the sort of thing that, were the readers of the Daily Mail to get hold of it, would simply serve to reinforce their perceptions of the communications profession (for such it is, ladies and gents) as one peopled with snake-oil salesmen, mountebanks and charlatans.

I suppose, looking at it simply, if the two parties deal with each other in a transparent and unbiased manner, no good will come of it. If the two parties do it behind closed doors, on an off-the-record, unattributable basis, then some good may come of it – benefiting both sides and (for the sake of argument) the shareholders of one side. But those same shareholders who have benefited from the shenanigans are the Daily Mail readers who would be appalled by the way the benefit has been delivered. (There is a point in this, honest, but you may have to read it twice.)

But, in any case, I digress. Today, while having a desultory flick through t’interweb, I came across a corpcomms blog, featuring a post from a journalist in the Far East (I’m imagining Hong Kong). The gist of his post was that in the Far East, where people have been known to lose their jobs over negative coverage (and that doesn’t happen here?), getting a verbal answer out of a PRO is practically impossible.

All questions must be put in writing, and will receive a written answer. Our journalist friend was a bit put out by this, complaining that the written answers he was getting sometimes didn’t actually answer the questions he’d asked – oh, sure, the facts and figures were there, but the commentary on the more difficult topics wasn’t. His conclusion was “while there’s much to be said for companies ‘managing the message’, this level of control only really succeeds in closing down communication with the media. Especially as email responses often arrive days after the initial request, long after the story has been put to bed.”

Now I’m with him on that last bit. If you, or your press office, cannot turn a response round within deadline then either you’re not fit for purpose, or you have a frightening lack of access to those people with the answers. Either way, shape up, or ship out.

I do not agree, however, that managing the message – retaining some control over the information that gets issued – is closing down communications with the media. Rather, given the way some (not all) journalists deal with verbal responses and the respect (or lack thereof)that they have for confidence and trust, I’m afraid that ‘managing the message’  is the only way forward.

Personally – in my past, when I was Big and Important – I got fed up to the back teeth of journalists calling me up for a comment and then attempting to twist what I’d said, or extract something extra, in their all-encompassing, all-devouring search for ‘news’. As I’ve said before – news does not respect relationships and news has no friends – which is a hell of a lesson to learn, especially if you’ve spent time and effort building a relationship, only to find it thrown back in your face.

OK – I know there’s some out there who’ll call me a shiny wit for all of this – have I (I can hear you say) spent so long in this business without learning at least some of the tricks and without gaining a little bit of insight into the rules of the game? Of course I have, and if I choose to do so, I’m quite good at it – but it brings me back to what I said earlier.

If the Corporate Communication professional has to rely on the constantly shifting rules of a game that has never been formally defined in order to do his, or her, job, then we are not a profession – we are a confidence trick. 

I’m a professional – I’ve been stitched up numerous times – I’ll ask for the questions in writing.

(Oh, and PS – if we’re a confidence trick, what chance do we have of being taken seriously, and getting the seat at the top table? Just thought I’d ask.)

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