Article by: Jeremy James
Posted on: September 20, 2016
There is a natural tension that exists between the PR function and journalism. That tension is the simple fact that, in a business communications context, a PR person’s job is to gain positive press coverage for the client and a journalist’s job is to find the truth of the story, even if it is unfavorable to the company the PR person represents. Clients tend to worry about reporters seeking negative drama or looking at a set of facts and drawing a negative and, from the client’s perspective, wrong conclusion.
When the PR function is operating optimally, negatives are not dodged by company spokespeople. Rather, they are discussed candidly with the PR people so the PR people can advise the best course of action. Sometimes this is spin on a set of facts that, while not ideal, can be viewed as a normal part of business and can be positioned as “being handled appropriately.”
Here’s an example: Some years ago, we had a client who was far and away the leader in its product category. They discovered that one of their products, a product that was in consumers’ homes in the millions at that point, had a rubber part that, over time, became glazed due to a chemical reaction and began to show intermittent failures. They came up with a fix that would cost the consumer nothing — and, happily, would cost the company relatively little. Even though, as the category leader, this company and its products were followed by the tech press quite closely, the press had yet to learn of this problem. PR was involved on what to do from the very beginning. It took some months to get the fix manufactured in volume so we had both time to plan and contingency plans in place should the news come out before the fix was in place (it didn’t). In the interim, the company was taking back products individual customers complained about. A very responsible thing to do, but expensive.
Once the solution was in place, we took a failing product, the simple fix and a product manager on tour. We embargoed the information so all the press would break it at the same time the company announced the issue and the fix. The press response — and, more important, coverage — was unfailingly positive. Proactive, honest, but carefully planned crisis management. No playing coy with the press.
As an aside, the failure of the rubber part was due to a supplier changing its formula for the part without notifying our client. Our advice, and the company’s own instinct, was not to throw the supplier under the bus. The PR was about addressing a product issue, not blaming someone else for a part’s problem.
Coming clean is nearly always the best course of action. But that doesn’t mean you don’t carefully plan out how you will come clean. It is always best to have in place the answer to the “Now what?” question. The product failure story above is an example of Doing It Exactly Right. Obviously, bad news can be far worse and there are situations in which coming out unscathed is simply not an option. But the principle of (well planned) candor and dealing with the press on the up and up holds.
When a PR person is well armed and a company is mature in its understanding of and approach to PR, the PR person can deal with the reporter in good faith and help the reporter get a story that is balanced and complete. When PR people are able to deal straight with reporters on all stories — those that are positive and those that have some sub-optimal elements in them — both the credibility of the PR person and of the company they represent goes up. And coverage from quality journalists tends to be fair. The client then can rejoice about positive coverage and feel good about a balanced and thorough telling of stories that nevertheless have elements the client wishes didn’t exist.
The journalist is not the source of the negative; something about the company’s situation (financial, product, management, etc.) is the source of the negative. Appreciating this fact and supporting the PR function in Making the Best of It is a central element of ongoing positive PR.
And at the core of this is PR people understanding the journalist’s job, not treating the journalist as an adversary, and advocating internally for an outcome that will be best when the company, through its PR function, helps the reporter do his job.