There’s an old chestnut, often attributed to Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Like most quotes ascribed to the mustachioed Nineteenth Century author, this one is likely apocryphal. Besides, the saying should probably be updated to “Never argue with anyone who gets more than a million unique monthly page views.” But no matter who said it or when, it’s good advice. The media, by definition, has a bigger microphone than yours and it rarely pays to get crosswise with members of the Fourth Estate.
Case in point, a few years ago, we negotiated an exclusive embargoed news story with a business reporter at one of the leading news organizations in the world and they broke their word and ran the story early. It wasn’t exactly market-moving information, but it was annoying for us and our client and we let the reporter know it at our client’s insistence. But it may have come at a price. Even though our client is a key voice in this particular journalist’s beat, the reporter seems to have avoided writing about them ever since.
In this particular example, it might have been better to acknowledge the breech and look for another opportunity to rebuild trust. It is better to do what you can to stay in the good graces of those who buy their ink by the barrel.
To that end, here are a few things to consider:
- Choose your battles. If a factual error is important and really needs correcting, by all means, speak up. But if it’s fairly minor or a matter of interpretation, consider letting it slide, especially if the story is otherwise favorable.
- Start with the reporter. No one likes to be ratted out to their boss. If a correction is needed, start by sending a note to the reporter (or better yet, have your PR firm play bad cop). You can always take it up with the editor if you aren’t satisfied, but journalists are mortified when they make a mistake and have every interest in handling the matter expeditiously and discreetly—they’ll probably do an end-run and make the correction themself or have their buddy, the online editor, make the change, leaving the curmudgeonly chief editor in the corner office none the wiser. Win/win. (Pro-tip: Maybe make the subject of your email something like “Clarification required,” or “Update requested” rather than, say, “CORRECTION DEMANDED!!” They’ll still get the point and you will get props for your diplomatic language.)
- Don’t presume you get to choose the angle. Reporters and editors are quite accommodating when it comes to correcting objective facts, but will quickly circle the wagons if your complaint is more about the “tone” of their story. They are not stenographers. If they asked a competitor for comment about your new product, they were just doing their job. In fairness, they should give you the opportunity to respond to a competitor’s critique before posting the story. If they don’t, a polite but firm follow-up is a good idea. But know that you are just “working the ref” for the next game–don’t expect/demand a correction if there is nothing factually incorrect in the story.
- Don’t treat journalism as crime. If a reporter calls you up and appears to have the goods on something you were hoping to keep under wraps, don’t say “no comment” because you’ll sound like a mob lawyer. Don’t get angry or threaten legal action (Pro tip: As a former reporter and editor at Institutional Investor, I used to love getting threats of prior restraint from armchair Perry Masons because it meant I was definitely onto something!). Rather, get over it and decide what you are going to do next. They may not yet actually have the story buttoned up and may be fishing for your confirmation, so avoid giving it to them. Casually sound them out to see if they really seem to have the story—“What have you heard? Where did you hear that?”—then buy time to plan your response by asking them what their deadline is and promise that you or your PR firm will get back to them.
- Consider a pre-emptive strike … then reconsider it. If you get an inbound query on an important story, you should probably finalize that news release you were drafting and plan to get it out once the news breaks (this is also why it’s a good idea to prepare and put in your back pocket a short statement about important initiatives or potentially sensitive news like the departure of a senior executive or portfolio manager well ahead of a full-blown announcement). You may even consider front-running the intrepid reporter with the announcement if you have reason to think they are a malign actor who won’t write a fair story. But know that if you do so and blow up their scoop while they believed you were preparing a comment for them, you will have made an enemy for life.
- Make yourself available. Earned media is extremely valuable. Don’t squander opportunities to get quoted or appear on camera because your schedule is tight. That is doubly the case when you announce news. Nothing is more frustrating for journalists (and your hard-working PR agents, for that matter) than sending out a news release and then not being available for follow up comments if and when a reporter bites. In general, you should find time to return reporters’ calls quickly, not a week from now. If you have to, make a call during your commute, while walking to your next meeting or while waiting for a plane. Responsive sources can always find a few minutes to return a reporter’s phone call quickly, and that goodwill can accrue to your benefit.
- Be a pal. You can also do yourself and your firm a favor by becoming a technical resource to a few key reporters in your market—someone they feel comfortable calling up off-the-record to run technical questions by. They’re not going to pull a negative story because you take their calls and were nice to them a couple of times, but they may shade it more in your favor or give you the benefit of the doubt if you have a constructive relationship.
Journalists can be maddening. They’re always skeptical (the good ones, at least), sometimes adversarial and they don’t always have an advanced technical understanding of the subjects they cover. But they do have two things you probably don’t—barrels and barrels of ink and an audience of decision makers you need to get in front of in order to grow your business.