Shortly after Facebook famously filed for its IPO on Feb. 1, it was reported that CEO Mark Zuckerberg sent a message to the banks that were tooting their own horns about their involvement in the mega public offering, essentially telling them to shut up. Unlike other young CEOs—like Groupon’s Andrew Mason, for example—Zuckerberg is playing the IPO game close to the vest, making sure that stakeholders are quiet in the quiet period.
It’s got to be tough for the banks, however, because tooting horns is what communicators are used to doing. In fact, just like the Scottish deerhound’s centuries-old ability to hunt down its antlered adversary, within a PR pro’s DNA is the innate penchant to toot their organization’s or their client’s horn—as loudly as possible.
There are times, however, when the tooting must cease and media outreach scaled back. IPOs are obviously one of those times. But there are other, non-IR instances when deflecting media advances is called for. Karen Hinton, president of Washington, D.C.-based Hinton Communications, says clients have a propensity to want to get the word out, particularly in a legal battle. “They often want to fight back. And they may have very legitimate arguments to make,” says Hinton. “But it’s sometimes better to hold your fire for a another time, laying low until a decision is reached. Then you can make your arguments in a more proactive way.”
Probing journalists are the impetus for ill-timed remarks. And while PR pros strive for transparency with reporters, there are situations where you may have to set some boundaries with them, at least until you yourself have the full story. Here are some tactics from Hinton on how to establish those boundaries:
- Under Attack? Be ‘On Background’ First: If the stakes are high, don’t let an executive talk to a reporter on the record in a one-on-one interview over the phone or in person. You or the exec should talk to the reporter on background only, and then send the reporter a written statement that is on the record. “In an on-the-record interview, you don’t want them to grab some misstatement you’ll regret,” says Hinton. “In the conversation you’ll find out where the reporter is going with the story. Then you can figure out exactly what you want to put on record.”
- Ask for a Story Preview: A variation on the prior tactic is to talk on background only, then ask the reporter to send an outline on what they will be using for the story. “Then you can comment on that for the record,” says Hinton. You can also let the journalist know that he or she should be focusing more on a different point. “Say, ‘Sure, you can use this, but quote me saying something else because it’s a more important point,’” says Hinton.
- Spokesperson of a Few Words: Sometimes a CEO or other top executives might get off message. “The only way to keep them on message might be to give them a couple of sentences to say that are relevant to the situation, so you’re not totally whitewashing,” says Hinton.
In addition, the ability to anticipate a problem story and predict which reporters are likely to cover it can be very helpful, says John Deveney, president of Deveney Communication, based in New Orleans. “Then, you’ll know how the story will be covered,” he says. Anticipation is something that Deveney stresses in deflecting the media. His team carefully analyzes the problem and devises a “multi-tiered strategy” for response. That often means different spokespeople for different media and different questions.
MAKIN’ ’EM WAIT
Keeping the media at bay doesn’t just occur in litigation or crisis situations. Product launches can be tricky, too. Shana Harris, chief operating officer at Baltimore-based PR agency Warschawski, says that in an ultra-competitive world, telegraphing a product launch at a trade show is just bad PR. Once, for a power tool company, Warschawski did a teaser campaign for the media with an e-mail and swag.
Getting the media to cover your organization on your terms—you want coverage, just not right away—also arises in management changes, rebranding efforts, product recalls and company expansions. With those categories, you’d want to announce the news internally first, says Harris. Which brings up another can of worms: How do keep employees quiet if sensitive news is about to hit? If you can’t tell your employees specifics, tell them that they may hear rumors, but leaders are on top of the situation. “Update employees as much as possible,” says Harris. “Because fear of the unknown is the biggest factor when employees talk out of turn to the press.”
Bottom line: The experts we spoke with for this story in no way condone playing games with the media. But extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures. Deveney’s team once dealt with a negative story from an investigative reporter by doing a probe of the situation themselves, then launching their findings to a number of outlets, thus rendering the original reporter’s scoop irrelevant. Devious? “I like to say it was highly strategic,” says Deveney.
Remember, it’s all about controlling the message, within reason, of course.
Karen Hinton, firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; Shana Harris, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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