Pitfalls to avoid when courting the media

The world of instant exposure on social media has turned PR people from spinners to window cleaners.

Rory Godson: managing partner at Powerscourt
Rory Godson: managing partner at Powerscourt

These days PR professionals sometimes tell how they are at the top table, offering trusted advice and fresh thinking to CEOs. There is plenty of truth in that, though it is not as if my colleagues and I have grown extra brains.

The reality is that news now travels so rapidly, and has such universal reach, that men and women leading great firms often wish to have their comms adviser at their side at all times.

The new supersonic news cycles also mean that when a crisis breaks, there is now even less time to waste than in the days before Twitter and YouTube. Preparedness helps to prevent wasting everyone's time, as does avoiding common mistakes.

First, do not waste valuable days sitting on your hands and declaring that "it's only a PR crisis". Mistaking the revelation of unwelcome facts about your business for journalistic mischief-making will only further damage your reputation and see you roasted on social media.

Another common error that wastes a lot of the CEO's time as a crisis plays out is trying to win journalists over so that they will change their opinion about your firm. Telling a journalist that their analysis is wrong rarely works, especially when they have already declared their position to an audience of millions.

Some time ago, the formidable Patience Wheatcroft (now Baroness) wrote in The Wall Street Journal that a business leader should be "sacrificed". His colleagues, aghast at the view that Wheatcroft could take against their man, whom she had not met, insisted on a lunch to make her see the light. The business leader was brilliant, charming and convincing. The lunch was warm and friendly. A few days later, Wheatcroft returned to the subject. Her views had shifted. Instead of calling for him to be sacrificed, she merely stated that he looked "not up to the job". So what had his people expected? That she would write: "I was wrong, dear reader"?

If trying to charm or browbeat journalists into changing their opinion, facing them down when they get the facts wrong is crucial. It is important to move fast, as a factual error can be repeated thousands of times within hours if it is not corrected. Setting journalists right on the facts also demonstrates appetite to guard a firm's reputation, making sloppy or libellous reporting less likely.

Attempting to spin your way out of a crisis is another no-no. Ten years ago, it sometimes made sense to leak selectively to media gatekeepers, such as favoured contacts. But now that everyone with an iPhone is a media gatekeeper, these sleights-of-hand are likely to backfire, with your carefully constructed version of events only attracting further online criticism.

So the days of using obfuscation and smoke-and-mirrors to cover over a crisis are fast coming to an end, and with this ultimately comes greater trust as companies and CEOs establish and maintain reputations for honesty. PR people still get called spinners, but these days we are often more like window cleaners - encouraging transparency and letting the light shine in.

Rory Godson is managing partner of Powerscourt

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