If the relationship’s broken do try to fix it

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about the difficult relationships some organisations have with the media and the frustration this causes.

Problems cited will be familiar to most who work in a local authority press office or deal with the same journalists regularly. Placing a negative slant on every story about your employer, being at loggerheads over a controversial issue or having your full and detailed briefing relegated to footnote status on a negative story are just some things to cause headaches. Occasionally, this can get bad enough for journalists to be blanked by a press office (that happened to me when I was a reporter). 

It can be a source of despair, and I’ve heard it stated that [name of paper/editor] just won’t listen to what we have to say about [controversial project]. 

How, indeed, do things get to such a stage? And what can be done to make it better? Here are some thoughts on what I would do to fix those important and mutually beneficial relationships with local journalists. It’s not always easy – but it is worth the effort. 

1. Jaw jaw, not war war: It’s not fashionable to say, but journalists are human beings like the rest of us. Most have an in-built, but healthy, scepticism about anything that resembles an ‘official line’ on a controversial project when they are hearing, rightly or wrongly, concerns from other sources that take the story in a different direction. And they are entitled to report those concerns and ask difficult questions of public organisations. Frustrating as this is, negative unfair coverage can rarely be justification for cutting the local media out of what’s going on. ‘Coming down hard on them’ is an understandable impulse – but angry letters, threats of legal action or (worse) postings on your own website slating the media need to be handled with care if they are not to make matters worse. Before it gets to this point, a more sensible approach would be to invite the editor or journalist in for a briefing where – at the very least – they can be brought up to speed on the background and openly discuss any concerns. It’s worth pointing out where something has been incorrectly reported or misrepresented. But statements like ‘I think you should write this…’ or ‘This is what you should be doing…’ should be avoided. The chances are they will do the opposite if they feel like they are being spun a line. If that briefing ends with the media having a better understanding of the issues, it may not stop the negative headlines. But it will help to build a better relationship with them.

2. Stop spinning; start straight-talking: Given their sceptical nature, it’s not surprising that once the media gets its teeth into a negative issue – a major planning application which local people don’t support, for example – it can become major news. Statements which do not acknowledge these concerns in their keenness to ‘stress the positive’ may simply be lost in the noise or overlooked altogether. Many journalists complain about organisations trying to ‘spin’ their way out of a mess, by sending out statements which fail to acknowledge, much less address, the issues staring them in the face. Far from believing what’s being said, the more likely response is that people will stop listening and those ‘positive’ statements will be spiked by disbelieving hacks. It’s better to acknowledge the problem early, take responsibility for putting it right and explain how this will happen, and by when. It won’t result in the negative headlines disappearing overnight, but it will help maintain credibility and respect. If anyone needs proof of how consistent denial and attack can come back to bite, News International’s abject refusal to acknowledge the scale of wrongdoing taking place in its name is a classic example. If it had come clean earlier, it would still have resulted in a firestorm. But it would have caused less damage, without a doubt.

3. Keep some perspective: Bad headlines are rarely helpful, and can be damaging. But putting them into context can help determine the best response. In assessing the impact bad press can cause, there are some key pointers to consider, namely: what’s the title’s readership base (if it’s a blog, how influential is it)? Who is likely to see the coverage? Is this a one-off? If one local paper, read by a few thousand people, has run a single negative story which is slanted to represent the views of an opponent, then the damage this will cause is likely to be minimal. It’s worth remembering in such cases that the vast majority of local people would not have come across a negative story in the weekly paper. Publicly complaining about it is only likely to draw wider attention to the issue and keep the ‘row’ going for another week. It can sometimes be better in such cases to have conversations with any stakeholders who may have questions about the story and rely on other channels (website, newsletters and social media) to directly engage local people in the meantime.

4. If all else fails…: We shouldn’t be afraid to complain. But if steps have been taken to build relationships and be straight about the issue in question, this will probably be a lot easier and be taken more seriously. I’ve blogged before about some of the steps that can be taken here.

Easier to say than to do? Certainly. But good relationships is what PR is about, and is absolutely why the public sector needs decent practitioners at a time of change and increased pressure.