How to Get Reluctant Executives to Stop Worrying and Talk with the Media

INTERVIEW

A common charge for the PR pro is to proactively promote a brand or company through media outreach. But what if the company’s leadership won’t allow it?

In-house communicators know this phenomenon well, but agency PR pros might also stumble upon this Gordian knot. Regardless of your place of employment, your objective is set: find newsworthy content and spread the word. To do this most effectively, of course, you’ll need a company representative, ideally someone high ranking, such as a VP, COO or even CEO. But what if the exec refuses?

Executives can be extremely gun-shy around media, perhaps springing from a past incident, such as having been misquoted. Leadership might perceive the company or its industry to be a media target, energy and banking come to mind. Perhaps when company figures were cited incorrectly in an article the editor failed to print a correction. Or, maybe the reason for the executive's reluctance to engage with media is all a big misunderstanding.

Regardless, your would-be spokesperson’s view of the media is skewed, resulting in a damaged or non-existent relationship with journalists. The executive might think that if the media is interested only in attacking, why should he/she willingly put the company in the crosshairs? To avoid this scenario altogether, then, they may adopt a head-down mentality – just go about your business and avoid media attention, good or bad.

As we know, a policy like this, while potentially safer, represents an enormous lost opportunity for the company to connect with target audiences and boost the brand.

How can you encourage a more proactive external communications strategy for reluctant execs whose wariness of the media is completely (or largely) unfounded? After all, even if you happen to be in an industry with shady practitioners, it doesn’t mean your executives should avoid sharing the company’s positive news or examples of corporate social responsibility.

Take Baby Steps

Start with an in-depth discussion about your executives’ concerns and their source. Be understanding of their trepidation and show that you’re mindful of taking a measured approach to media relations. After all, your job includes protecting the company. With that foundational understanding in place, you can pitch the following:

  • To introduce the concept of media as an ally, start off small: Host an event in your backyard and invite local print reporters. For apprehensive executives, this could provide a more welcoming atmosphere. Show your executives examples of other local companies that have been featured in the media for positive reasons, such as launching an employee wellness program or sponsoring a local Little League team. These stories will demonstrate that local media are interested in covering these angles without going negative.
  • Send positive news to relevant trade publications. Consider smaller, more targeted publications with a concentration of readers who share your company’s interests. Pick a development that the executive is proud of and suggest sharing it with one or more of these publications. In addition to giving the company a good shot at coverage, hitting that smaller, more targeted audience could also make more sense for the company’s business goals. Even a quick sentence in the outlet’s News Brief section should help convince your exec that outreach to the right media can be pain-free.

In fairness, maybe there is a member of the media who is out to get your brand or some of its executives. In such a case, you now have an opportunity to help devise a media relations strategy that identifies friendly media and targets it with positive company news while avoiding those who might have an agenda.

This is not whitewashing. It’s a matter of targeting specific kinds of news to the media audiences that will be most receptive to covering it. And, it doesn’t mean you sweep problems under the rug, either; if the company has made mistakes, you should implement a smart communications plan to address them – while the executive leadership team works to set things right with groups that might have been negatively impacted. To paraphrase, not every category of the media needs to be targeted with your news.

Jay Hickman is director of PR for MMI Agency.  Follow him at: @JayHickmanMD