I’ve seen the interchange often. A CEO or senior executive gets steamed by a negative story in the media. “Call the reporter! Call the editor, call the publisher!” they order their PR folks. And then the ultimate threat–”Call the advertising department, I’m canceling all my ads!”
The normal and expected response of the rational and experienced PR manager is to say, “Calm down, it really wasn’t so bad, and you’ll only make it worse by responding.” The ultimate argument always comes down to: “You don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
That’s conventional wisdom. But, is it right? Particularly, since the organizations who actually buy ink by the barrel are going out of business rapidly and those who are left seem to be getting by with as little ink as possible? What should the policy be about challenging inaccurate, misleading, or distorted media reports–including blogs.
I would like to challenge the conventional wisdom–with some caveats. There are times when it makes sense and times when it doesn’t–and it’s not easy distinguishing those. But a few factors to keep in mind:
- A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
In the absence of any challenging information, incorrect information will stand. So, if someone says you are a liar and you stand their meekly without response, it doesn’t take too many times for those observing this to think, well, if he wasn’t a liar he certainly would have said something by now.
- The media herd mentality.
We’ve seen in almost all major news stories a sort of media herd mentality. You would think the competitive media environment would foster diversity in coverage, yet over and over we see a “me too” kind of reporting, sort of like the Hollywood sequel thing in hyper-time. So when a story hits that is juicy and attracts attention you can be quite sure that it will feed other outlets as well as social media sites for a while.
- Collective intelligence. The social media world is usually right about the facts. That comes as a surprise to the many who have been told that “you can’t believe anything that’s on the internet.” Maybe not at first, but through “collective intelligence” factual errors and errors of omission or spin are usually frequently corrected. It’s how wikipedia works–accuracy comes not from a single highly credible source, but multiple sources with multiple perspectives who contribute, contradict, correct and converse.
- Coverage is about conversation. Media stories are far more dynamic and involve much more interactivity today. Today there is a level of interactivity between what happens on our TV sets and what happens on the internet. We used to talk about convergence–between old and new media, between mainstream and social media. The convergence is virtually complete so a major news story stimulates conversation as online conversation stimulates major news stories.
In the Gulf Spill, as I mentioned here before, anyone involved in the spill was horrified at much of the inaccurate, infotainment oriented news coverage. Truth be told, I strongly encouraged spill communication leaders to take a much more aggressive approach to addressing some of the extreme examples of erroneous coverage. It was not done, and only now are some of the more extremes being revealed and discussed. But public opinion is essentially fixed permanently in part based on some poor and irresponsible reporting. The problem was that those who had access to the facts and the truth, for various reasons, were unwilling to confront those who were running fast and loose with the truth.
What did I advise? I suggested a section be put on the response website (both BP and DeepwaterHorizonresponse.com) that would be called “Fact Check.” In this section, the blatantly incorrect or over-the-top media stories which led to public misunderstanding or confusion would be challenged. It would say, “XYZ Cable Channel said this, but the facts are…”
I’ve done similar things before in very difficult issue battles and saw it make a remarkable difference in media coverage. The reason is simple. It’s all about credibility. People will believe what they read and see if they see nothing that contradicts it. A lie becomes the truth. But when confronted with contrary information, all but the most jaded will say: “Hmm, I wonder who is telling the truth here?” If it is clearly demonstrated that the media story or blog is out to lunch on the facts or their treatment of the facts, their credibility is called into question. A serious reporter, editor or blogger cannot have their credibility questioned–not for long anyway. Which means, if they understand that you are willing to challenge them on their reporting and that you will be completely fair, accurate, respectful in doing so, they will double check next time to make certain what they are saying is the truth and is not misleading. Failing to do so risks embarrassment and loss of credibility.
Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the nation’s largest public utility, is one of those agencies that is frequently the subject of media reports and even more of blogs. Not everything written or reported is accurate. They recently implemented the “Fact Check” section on their newsroom website which does as I describe (full disclosure–DWP is a PIER client). Here’s what it looks like on their site:
I think this is done right, respectfully and I know they are fully committed to communicating the truth and maintaining credibility.
I said there were some caveats and maybe they go without saying:
- be credible — the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
- don’t heighten an issue unnecessarily–here is where the judgment call really comes in. Some things are better left untouched. But any issue, any false report, any irresponsible attack must be monitored closely to see if it is getting legs.
- be nice–there is some sage old advice that still works well: “a soft answer turns away wrath” and “be good to those who hate you” and “do unto others…” Don’t let your anger and frustration about unfair accusations and stories translate into your responses.
- know when to quit–I can see some of these “fact check” discussions going back and forth, each accusing the other of being dishonest. You have to know when to leave it lay. Another piece of advice I like: “When you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.”