Case Study No. 2948: McGraw-Hill Uses Media to Attack Prior Restraint Decision


Just as The McGraw-Hill Companies [MHP], based in Manhattan, was crafting a new corporate image -- that it was more than just a standard ink-on-paper informations company -- it was confronted with a rare politically-charged crisis that would prove to be a PR diamond-in-the-rough. On Sept. 13, 1995, hours before Business Week was to go to press with a startling investigative news story, a restraint order was faxed to MGHC bringing its flagship publication to a screeching halt. To the amazement of Ken Vittor, The McGraw-Hill Companies (MGHC) senior vice president and general counsel, the Business Week story, which revealed a business controversy and litigation between Procter & Gamble [PG] and Bankers Trust Company [BNTA], was being held hostage because an Ohio district court judge objected to information in the article that came from sealed court records. All of a sudden, MGHC found itself on the front lines battling for First Amendment rights, not only for Business Week and its other publications, but for all media. A media relations plan-of-attack was immediately assembled. A 24-member crisis communications task force comprised of legal counsel members, Business Week PR representatives and MGHC corporate communicators had to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to best sound the alarm on this breach of First Amendment rights. Once in crisis-communications mode, the team identified three key objectives. First, aggressively seize the issue by maximizing the exposure of MGHC and Business Week efforts in upholding the First Amendment to target audiences of national and regional business, financial and trade press, financial analysts, stockholders, employees and the general public. Secondly, raise MGHC's visibility as a proactive business leader with integrity, especially in the editorial area. And lastly, raise the awareness of MGH as the parent company of Business Week. But Steven Weiss, senior director of MGHC's corporate communications, emphasized that "all of our objectives were driven by what was going on in the courts." Since this was a fairly rare restraint case that defied conventional First Amendment law related to the media (prohibiting MGHC from publishing sealed information and the absence of notice and a hearing), Vittor looked to the landmark 1971 ruling in the Pentagon Papers, where the court refused to block the publication of classified defense documents, as a frame of reference. "We knew we had to obey the court order but strategically attack through the media." And from a PR standpoint, MGHC and Business Week had to provide around-the-clock media access to case developments and court rulings. "We had to explain what was happening, as it was happening, to the media," said Weiss. In addition to firing off frequent news releases and Internet postings, a case of this magnitude required an aggressive media relations strategy for answering thousands of interview requests. To this end, Vittor and Stephan Shepard, Business Week's editor-in-chief were available for teleconferences and one-on-one interviews each day of the seven-month legal battle (from Sept. 13 to March 5). A fully staffed 24-hour news bureau was created by MGHC's corporate communications department. And, for objective commentary, reporters were regularly referred to scholars and experts on First Amendment issues (Floyd Abrams and Victor Kovner). The prevailing message that was pounded into reporters -- and that the MGHC-Business Week's corporate PR mission flowed from -- was: "This case goes to the heart of the First Amendment and can happen to any news organization," said Weiss. Indeed, the far-reaching implications of this message were heard and acted upon. Every major national, regional and international news outlet covered the case, generating thousands of stories reaching millions of people nationwide. The most significant coverage came from on-going stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters and The American Lawyer, with some national broadcast coverage on CNN, PBS and NPR. In addition to covering the case, MGHC's and Business Week's impassioned communications efforts, which commanded over 1,000 man hours, struck such a chord that more than 20 "Friends of the Court" briefs were filed from such media entities as The New York Times Company, Newsweek Inc., Time Inc., Gannett Satellite Information Network Inc. and the Magazine Association of American Publishers. On March 5, when the dust settled from this legal battle and Cincinnati's Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed a "bedrock First Amendment principle" that the press shall not be subjected to prior restraint, MGHC emerged as society's defender of the right to unfettered accounts of breaking investigative news. In addition to raising the awareness level that MGHC is Business Week's parent company by 33 percent, the effort also won industry praise, earning Business Week the 1996 National Magazine Award, and MGHC the 1997 PRSA Big Apple Award for crisis communications. MGHC continues to receive topspin from this campaign. Joseph L. Dionne, chairman and ceo, and Harold McGraw III, president and coo, have made numerous references to the corporation's First Amendment victory at key events like shareholders meetings, financial analysts presentations, the German Business Congress and the National Press Club. (MGHC, Steven Weiss, Ken Vittor, 212/486-4255)

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