A War You Will Not Win

A few years ago I called a senior staff executive to talk with him about a story a journalist was working on. The reporter planned to write a story about news we had yet to announce and was calling for our reaction.

"Tell him it's not news because it hasn't been done yet," the executive said. I explained that the reporter had anonymous sources confirming the news and would publish the article whether we commented or not.

"He can't write the story without us," the executive insisted. I responded that he can and will and that our only decision was whether we wanted to comment.

President Trump at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 where he complained about media reports on the size of the crowd for his inauguration. 

President Trump at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 where he complained about media reports on the size of the crowd for his inauguration. 

Exasperated, the executive ended the conversation with: "Gary, it's not news, just tell him to (bleep) off." 

The reporter wrote the story with a "we don't comment on rumors and speculation," quote from me. 

I think back on that exchange as a failure on my part. I had failed to help this executive understand how the media works. He did not understand that we aren't reporters' only source of information about our organization, or that they dig and discover news on their own. He considered the media the enemy.

This last point is very important as we watch a new presidential administration continue its self-declared "running war with the media," as President Trump said this weekend. Clearly, the new White House team wants Americans to trust only the words that come out of Trump's mouth. Plus, their polls likely show it is good politics for the president to denigrate the media as "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth."

It might be good politics with those who already support him but it does not help the president win the trust of more Americans. It is also not good for the country, which needs a strong and trusted press to act as a check on those in power by helping citizens understand and act on important issues and challenges.  

I thought of this yesterday watching a ridiculous "press conference" at the White House. On the president's first full day in office, the new press secretary called the media to the briefing room to insult and berate them and to make assertions that are demonstrably untrue. Today, another presidential spokesperson said Press Secretary Sean Spicer was simply using "alternative facts," whatever that means. What prompted this harangue from the podium? Ego-driven and petty anger about how many people attended the president's inaugural speech.

Spicer said the media's reporting on the crowd size was "deliberately false," an astonishing claim when visual and factual evidence supports the media's reporting. It was the second time in two weeks that Spicer harshly lectured the media. I can tell you from experience it feels good when it comes out of your mouth, but these rants only undercut your credibility. 

This blog is not intended to be partisan or anti-Trump. Nor do I intend to be an apologist for the media; fake and biased news exists and is increasing in volume. 

I do, however, have some perspective on how disdain for and ignorance of the media can be a cancer that invades and impairs an organization. After 35 years of working in and with the media, I know that the vast majority of journalists are dedicated to getting it right. 

It falls to the communicator or public relations leader to convince his colleagues of this point and to create a healthy and informed relationship with journalists. Don't get me wrong -- there are times when someone is determined to do harm to your organization regardless of the facts. In those cases communicators must be tough-nosed and aggressive, and prepared to tell their story through their own platforms. And there may be rare instances when it is justified to tell these people to "(bleep) off."

Do not let the idea that the media is the enemy pervade your organization’s culture. This attitude lets executives off the hook on understanding and interacting with the media.

Communicators must educate their colleagues that, in some cases, these are not real journalists -- a Sean Hannity or a Mother Jones whose political ideology overwhelms any journalistic ethics. These people are activists with Twitter accounts, printing presses, web sites, or cable news and talk radio programs. Monitor and manage the perceptions these activists create but do not treat them the same as journalists who adhere to high ethical standards.

Fighting anti-media negatively in an organization is not easy and may may occasionally result in a "whose side are you on" stare from a colleague. Here are a few quick ideas on how to win this fight: 

  • Educate them on how the media has changed over the past two decades with the emergence of social media and, help them understand who is influential and who is not. A business leader once said to me in a meeting that I was overreacting to a reporters' inquiry. "It's just some guy with a blog," she said. The blog was the Huffington Post and the reporter was a Pulitzer Prize winner. This leader had little understanding of the new media environment and therefore could not make an informed decision on how best to we proceed.
  • Give them metrics on social media "shares" and retweets to back up your recommendations so they react logically and not emotionally to news. 
  • Communicate with them about new and emerging media thought leaders and platforms. Get them together with journalists for coffee or lunch to establish or reinforce a relationship. The more journalists know about your enterprise and its leadership, the more likely they are to produce fact-based journalism.
  • Train them to understand and deal with pseudo-reporters vs. the real thing.

Do not let the idea that the media is the enemy pervade your organization's culture. This attitude lets executives off the hook on understanding and interacting with the media. It creates a "why bother?" or "shut down their access" mentality that, in the long run, hurts you more than it hurts the journalist.

News is not going to stop because you want it to. Journalists and others are going to write, tweet, speak and editorialize about your organization with or without your participation. It is far better to be in the game, calling your plays than brooding on the sidelines.