It's about to happen. You hear a story will run that says unfavorable things about your company. Or, perhaps it’s a story that might lead to negative financial ramifications for your client's organization.
Perhaps, you think, as a PR pro you are paid to use your relationship with the reporter and ask that she stop the story from running.
Not so fast.
“You really can’t kill a story” and shouldn't try, says Tawanda Carlton, PR director at Media Frenzy Global.
“As PR professionals, we play the middleman" between media and companies we represent. "However, we can't control the media. Asking a journalist that you have built a solid relationship with…to kill their story is bad business as a PR professional.”
Not to mention that trying to kill a story could result in damaging your relationships with other media members. It is, after all, a small world.
"PR professionals need to tread very carefully before they attempt to squash negative stories," says Arick Wierson, a former senior communication aide to former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg and current freelance journalist.
"When I hear that someone wants to kill a story, it makes me think there might be even more to it, additional facts that someone wants to keep buried,” he says. “It's a huge red flag, and for the typical journalist, such an effort will likely make them want to keep on digging even deeper."
Responding to the Story
Instead, Carlton suggests “putting your crisis comms hat on” and first determining whether or not to contact the reporter. It’s important to decide whether saying nothing will hurt your organization more than remaining silent. In most cases, Carlton advises PR pros reach out to the journalist. She does, however, caution against asking for a full retraction. Instead, she advises asking for a retraction only if the facts “are 100 percent incorrect" and legal issues may arise if the false information is reported.
But first, it's critical to convince the client that a story cannot be squashed just because it shows him in an unfavorable light. "Our role is to be straightforward and direct in telling [the client] that it is unlikely a story can be killed...based solely on a difference of opinions or interpretation," says Brian Glicklich, CEO of Digital Strategy Ltd..
Instead, the communicator's job is to focus on "persuading the reporter to cover [your client's] side as fully as he does the opposition," he suggests.
In some cases, it could be beneficial to take the story to a competing media outlet and proactively pitch a story based on your client's angle. "Crafting an alternative narrative is based on finding the key fact that supports us: the easy-to-understand single element that best undermines the narrative we oppose," Glicklich says.
Further, he adds, "we reverse narratives...by building affirmative stories about clients...The key is to not get so focused on the short-term tactical need to deal with a single reporter that you lose sight of the bigger picture," which may include messaging through paid media or perhaps an op-ed by the company CEO.
"Reporting is one piece of a larger crisis and strategic communications puzzle," says Glicklich, "We always have more options to communicate with customer, employees, vendors and regulators. Obsessing over one story or even news coverage is to lose sight of our other options to deploy our messages."
Avoiding a Crisis
While the consensus argues against attempting to kill a story, except in rare circumstances, there are tactics from crisis communication that PR pros should heed in these situations.
Glicklich advises PR pros to understand a story's angle fully at the outset.
“Listen carefully to the reporter’s questions...review past stories from the same reporter and ask the reporter what point he or she is trying to make,” he suggests. “Never underestimate the power of trying to understand the reporter’s thought process beyond simply taking her or his questions literally.”
In handling controversial matters, he says, “ it’s important to be clear about your position and how it differs from the reporter’s, or in many cases, the source whose ideas he is presenting. Many matters are simply driven by opinion, and our deliverable is to make sure our side is fairly represented.”