In media fights, pick your battles

Sometimes, journalistic bias isn't as clear-cut as it seems. David Ward discovers how to handle the matter

Sometimes, journalistic bias isn't as clear-cut as it seems. David Ward discovers how to handle the matter

Access Communications SVP Rich Layne relays a story likely all too familiar to PR pros. "One of our clients recently met with a writer from a top business publication and the reporter quickly made it clear he considered the whole industry dinosaur-like and incompetent," says Layne. "But that bias wasn't as apparent in his stories, so it became a question of whether you respond to the diatribe or his professionalism on the page."

In that kind of situation, Layne advises his client to try to make his case, but not waste the entire interview with a point-by-point rebuttal. "Reporters are a filter," he says. "Therefore, they are going to have opinions about things. You have to respect that about them."

Accusations of media bias - both benign and harmful - are everywhere these days, and in some instances those claims have some validity. Reporters like Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal have made it clear through years of columns that they prefer some companies, such as Apple, over rivals like Microsoft. The likelihood of changing such views are slim at best.

But what can seem like an unfair bias may be something else entirely, and it's up to PR pros to find out what the problem is and how to solve it.

"Sometimes it's something as minor as a buzzword that sets them off, so they're going to jump on you for using a term like 'solution,' for example," explains Sean Kauppinen, VP with Kohnke Communications. "But if you do your homework, you can certainly find what these hot buttons are, and not use them when you're dealing with that reporter."

Alison Holt Brummelkamp, SVP of media relations with GolinHarris, says someone on her staff recently was yelled at by a reporter from a major outlet after one of his competitors was given a scoop. "We let him go on for a while and then explained that we had called him five times and left him three e-mails, but he never responded, so we moved on," she says. "He grumbled and hung up, but we realized that we still needed to build a relationship with this person, so we called and offered him something new."

There are, of course, clients who are quick to cite journalistic bias if coverage of their company or product isn't universally positive. But Layne says: "If a reporter is venting about something, whether it's about your client or the industry, you have to acknowledge it. Usually there is some grain of truth in what they're saying. Often, you just have to concede their point and move on."

Brummelkamp stresses the need to make sure clients understand that even if suspicions of journalistic bias are legitimate, there is nothing to be gained by punishing the reporter. "I've never frozen out a reporter, and always advise my client not to do that, as well, because there's no upside," she says. "You always have to keep trying. If the media are going to be biased or hostile, then at least you know you've done everything you could."

Brummelkamp adds this policy should be universal, regardless of the reporter's seniority. "For one thing, it's just professionalism," she says. "But you also never know where a reporter at a second- or third-tier publication is going to end up."

"There may be certain reporters you'll never be able to win over, but PR pros should never hold a grudge," agrees Dan Drotman, president of sports PR firm Drotman Communications. "If they can be beneficial to you going forward, you need to find a way to work with them."

It also helps to make clients understand that every once in a while bias happens. The key is to focus on the long term.

"You have to explain to the client that even if a reporter makes four bad points about them, you can still go back to them and say, 'Here's points five and six that you may not have thought about,'" Layne explains. "Unless you're willing to engage in dialogue, you'll never get anything positive out of that reporter."


Technique tips

DO

Research. You can usually figure out a reporter's peccadilloes in advance of an interview by looking at past work

Figure out the problem. Maybe a reporter had a prior bad experience with the firm/client

Keep the dialogue going. If you stick to facts, you can eventually open most people's eyes

DON'T

Hold grudges. You're never going to change a reporter's mind by
freezing them out

Blame every negative piece on reporter bias. Not everyone will find your story compelling

Look for trouble. You gain nothing by going at it with a reporter over a story you feel is biased. It rarely changes minds

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