Dreams and Reality: Controlling the Media or Countering Negative Coverage

Of all the PR approaches that are part of a practitioner’s bag of promises, the one that might be the most deceitful is assuring someone you represent that controlling negative media coverage is only a check away–if that check is made out to you.

History shows that controlling the media narrative is impossible, no matter how often people claim they can.

Using sleek charts and other bells and whistles when trying to convince someone that the media can be controlled is similar to a well thought-out plan generals create prior to the beginning of a battle. It works in theory, but once the fighting begins it is what happens on the battlefield that matters, not what the planners planned.

Subtle as a...

As Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The same holds true for media interviews. An executive or politician can try to control the situation. Former White House official Kellyanne Conway did this on cable news shows. Her methods included non-stop talking, similar to a media filibuster.

But that exposed her, critics argue. Some perceived Conway as unwilling to answer certain questions, which to them made her sound as if she was hiding something.

Print problems

In print situations, it's even more difficult for the interviewee to control the narrative. In a print interview, the reporter or editor decides what to include. Should the interviewee try to control the narrative by talking around questions and saying unimportant things the result often is that there will not be a story.

For recent examples of how it is impossible to control the narrative, all you need to do is look at the coverage of Boeing, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, the recently renamed Facebook and so many other corporations. They spent millions trying to control the narrative, without success.

The only chance of controlling the narrative, relatively at least, is via advertising, which honest PR pros will advise.

There's help with media

However, while it is impossible to control the media narrative, there are ways to counter it.

Probably the best method is eliciting statements from respected third-party individuals who defend an executive or company. Disseminate such comments to journalists. But for this tactic to achieve the most meaningful results, those individuals must be available for media interviews. This is a difficult, but doable, tactic.

Moreover, placing op-eds in influential newspapers also is useful. While they reach a limited audience, the savvy communicator will use op-eds as background material. She'll send them to journalists, TV news producers and radio talk show bookers when pitching interviews.

Let's have lunch

Another successful media relations tactic is the round-table luncheon. Invite no more than a dozen journalists to lunch with someone you represent. Limit the journalists to those from important consumer and trade outlets on your target list.

In addition, these media members should cover the person or company regularly. This should assure that questions are intelligent and direct-to-the-point. Such roundtables afford a person or company an opportunity to answer questions without interruption.

Defensive PR

Another method that works with media, especially during a PR crisis, is defensive PR. Reject interview requests from general-assignment reporters. Too often they ask confrontational questions without giving people an opportunity to explain their position. This is because these reporters are more interested in creating a gotcha situation than trying to develop an accurate story.

Cable political shows offer a good example of this. Watch reporters on such shows. Many are not fully versed in the subjects discussed.  As a result, questions often are asked to elicit a response that makes news, which most often results in incomplete or misleading stories. Sometimes the story has little to do with the subject at hand.

In sum, controlling the narrative sounds nice. In a bind, executives and companies will pay PR pros and agencies a lot of money who make such promises. Unfortunately, these claims often have little relation to the real world of journalism.

The honest PR person knows it's impossible to control the narrative.

Arthur Solomon was an SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. A former journalist, he was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. Reach him: [email protected]

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]