Our Philosophy

Flak Attack (Wagging the Dog to Death)

by Jeri Cartwright
President, Cartwright Communications
for adnews magazine

When I was a news journalist in a past life, a new program called '60 Minutes' was tantalizing the nation with daring investigative reports. The result? It became difficult to get anyone to do any news interviews. Suddenly, the public believed all reporters were Mike Wallace cutouts, doggedly gathering mud to sling at anyone’s reputation. A similar scenario is now plaguing newsrooms. But now it is the reporters who resist talking — to public relations professionals. What have we done to deserve this?

(Lights up, aaaannnd ACTION!)

“So, how do you like your new beat?” I asked a reporter over lunch recently. “I don’t know if I can deal with it,” he replied with hostility. “It’s so flak intensive.” His venomous attitude persisted through the meal. He recounted stories of PR crimes (he was kind enough not to recount my own). He told of phone badgering beyond belief. How PR types would aggressively call, insisting he cover their client’s latest product, the latest company news, the latest greatest invention — and when he said no, they just wouldn’t give up.

Are we no better than the telemarketer that calls during dinner? I winced. I shrunk in my chair. I left the restaurant dragging my professional pride behind me. (Fade to black — and I do mean BLACK.)

The Paper Chase

If it’s not the constant phone calls during deadline, reporters complain about our excessive and near-abusive use of the news release. A recent PR trade publication revealed that the Wall Street Journal, fed up with the constant influx of paper, decided to make a point. It saved all the releases it received in one business day. The stack measured ten feet high.

Mistrust ‘R’ Us

Most disturbing is the growing lack of trust the media have for the public relations profession. Something hurts inside when I’m introduced as a “spin doctor.” This unfortunate label implies a willingness to abandon ethics to achieve a client’s end. How did we get here? Perhaps we’re all a little to blame. We have done an idiotic thing — we’ve formed a firing squad in a circle.

A Little Soul Searching

Can we reverse this frenetic flak attack? Absolutely. We need to be willing to tell a client when something really doesn’t deserve news coverage. And the news release is so overused, it has become quite ineffective. There are other creative ways to get the word out. Additional thoughts:

  1. Unprofessional, aggressive, or sloppy behavior with reporters burns bridges for all of us. Also, seasoned professionals, not interns, should pitch stories to the media.
  2. Simply pitching a product to a reporter is never enough (unless it is new, sexy and cutting-edge). Let’s not become a pack of “snake-oil” salespeople. The real story may not lie with the product. Find an issue or problem that the product can assist with.
  3. Mere media coverage cannot encourage and sustain product sales, and we should never tell a client otherwise. A client must be willing to invest in advertising and marketing for successful sales. In tandem with a solid marketing program, news coverage is an incredible enhancement. It lends credibility to advertising claims. The reporter (at least in the reader’s eyes) is an objective third party.
  4. Mere product ideas and vaporware are weak angles for news coverage. If you don’t have the product yet, using news coverage to attract investors is dangerous. Reporters despise being used and will never forgive you.

  5. If a client asks you to lie, turn down the business. I know — it is never that clear-cut. Ethical belief systems come only in gray. No black or white in stock. But follow your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Your reputation is all you’ll ever have.

A Message for Clients

Avoid consciously encouraging any of the above behavior. It can backfire. If not now, later. Realize also that there are a number of impeccable public relations practitioners in Utah. When hiring one, ask if they are aware of and adhere to the Code of Professional Standards, developed by the Public Relations Society of America (www.prsa.org). This simple question can help you weed out those who might harm the reputation of your business through unacceptable behavior with the media.

What can well-executed, ethical, ongoing media relations do? Build community reputation, act as preventive medicine should a company or product crisis occur and bring your important issues and messages to the public. Use ongoing media relations wisely, and you’ll never know what bad publicity you may have prevented. Misuse and badger reporters and the damage is eternal. And if you choose not to invest in media relations at all, be forewarned. You cannot expect miracles when you call in a media relations expert to get you out of a mess.

Above all, when selecting a PR expert — pick someone willing to tell you the brutal truth about yourself, your company and your product. Wouldn’t you rather hear the worst from your paid consultant instead of the daily news?


Article originally appeared in adnews magazine. Reproduced with permission.

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