Making the most of media relations
“… When we found that story in the newspaper we wished we would die since the journalist mentioned and included a lot of voices against our project. Also he misunderstood our objective and our sustainable practices around the mine. As a result we have received several questions not only from our main office but also from a federal judge! Certainly we made some mistakes since we did not pay a lot of attention to the journalist; we only gave him our sustainability reports… and here we are taking the consequences …”
This confession from my friend working at a mining company illustrates the usual rule: a low profile approach works if there is little public interest in a company. This is ordinarily not an option for a large or highly visible organization. In either case a low profile is a deficit when a crisis occurs, because there is no good will with the media or public to fall back on. Opportunities to win favourable mention and to build a positive corporate image have been forfeited. A communication channel with the media is an asset since they shape public opinion, among other things.
Robert Kilenschneider, a veteran public relations consultant, states, “A good image — one thats well made and well cared for — can survive everything, including the test of time. Scandal. Change. Bad earnings.”
The greater damage incurred by a low — profile is the lost opportunity to advance company views on public issues. Most companies have therefore rejected the low-profile strategy in favour of proactive media relations. They use several approaches: a) intervene in the news creation process, b) take a tough media stance, c) make their corporate news ‘irresistible’, and d) take advantage of the enlarged media menu.
Media relations professionals must be proactive — take action before something happens — by intervening in the news creation process. They can do this in four ways: “jump start” the news; engage in preemptive communication; “correct” the news (take out the inaccuracies and add positive statements); and influence reporting (e.g., by hiring media people with connections).
When an organization knows or suspects that a critical source is about to announce disturbing or controversial news in an upcoming news release or news conference, a proactive organization can pre-empt the release by publicizing its version of the story first. The advantage of taking the initiative is that the news can be placed in a fuller and more favourable perspective. Subsequent stories by others then lack news value.
Another interesting strategy is to regularly monitor an issue, including the use of public opinion surveys that track changes over time, to determine when an issue progresses in its life cycle. The survey approach was used by the Edison Electric Institute when it learned from a 1993 Cambridge Reports/ Research International survey that the percentage of people who were aware of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) suddenly jumped 18 percentage points to 63% awareness level. Previously the increase had averaged about four or five percentage points a year. For some utilities, that jump was a signal to begin a public communication program. Although most utilities preferred to communicate only with their own stakeholders, others sent news releases to the media in an attempt to interest them in the EMF issue. Their strategy was to pre-empt the issue by publicizing their side of the story before opposition groups presented their own side.
Proactive media relations can often go beyond taking the initiative and become confrontational and aggressive. As applied to the corporate world, Herb Schmertzs Good bye to the Low Profile introduces executives to his fundamental operating principle of “creative confrontation” — the willingness and ability to challenge your opponents and critics head-on, with imagination and flair. From my own experience as a journalist I suggest this: don’t try to make friends with reporters, but do try to establish a real relationship.
Jaquelina Jimena is a business journalist and advisor in CSR issues, based in Mendoza, Argentina, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.