I noted with interest the PR approach that Walmart took earlier this week when it humorously, but firmly, pushed back on an op-ed in The New York Times.
The retailer’s PR team used its own blog to take – literally – a red marker to the piece and suggested a few edits and additions that it believed would have created a more accurate and balanced column. I am sure they used a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to do the markup, as well.
As a communications professional at a company that is interesting, and large enough to generate a high level of media interest, the move struck a chord with me because it’s a tactic we have employed on a number of occasions. So I thought it might be interesting to give PRWeek’s readers some insight into our thought process and POV on when and where we choose to use our owned channels to challenge or rebut media coverage.
Now it’s worth stating up-front that my passion for responding to articles I disagree with must always be tempered by both wisdom and restraint. This means that for every time we decided to reply, there were dozens or maybe hundreds where I simply muttered to myself or subjected my family and dog to rants on the injustice of being misunderstood. There are times to just step…away…from…the…keyboard.
So having a clear and simple set of principles helps drive our response...or not:
Speed is king
If you want to counter a story that is creating a negative news cycle, you need to get your opposing point of view into the same news cycle. Creating a distinct, secondary news cycle is not only less effective, in many cases it can actually be counter-productive, focusing attention on a story that might already have lost its momentum. This requires a few things: a smart early warning system that flags bad stories early, empowered communications professionals who can take the initiative to draft potential responses before being asked, and an agile escalation system for making that crucial go or no-go call. And, of course, it requires owning a set of well-followed platforms that can be used to do so. News sites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook accounts and so on. The time to create these is not when you already have a problem.
Know the difference between annoying and dangerous
Since we can’t swing at everything, we need clarity about what kinds of stories are truly deserving of pushback. The key to this is simply knowing who you are and what values are a core part of your identity. When those core values are under attack from a misleading or unfair critique, the imperative to respond goes way up. For example, a few years ago, a former employee argued that we had innovation issues. Our ability to innovate is a core part of who we are. Our employees choose to work here because they know the innovations they create at Microsoft have the ability to change the world. So on their behalf, we needed to respond, and did so via our official corporate blog. It helped that we were able to cite lots of real-world examples of how innovations developed during the critic’s tenure were in fact now hitting their stride at scale.
Be at least as interesting as the trigger
Provocative headlines run on the front page, above the fold, while corrections usually get buried.
So if you have any hope of countering a narrative that is picking up steam, you must find a way to be provocative and socially savvy.
One thing to remember is that by constructing the right kind of response, you are arming your supporters with the facts they need to fight on your behalf. Sometimes a cleverly or provocatively worded tweet is all that is needed to make that happen. Last year, there was some very inaccurate reporting about our ongoing CEO search and its relationship to future product strategy. Rather than pointing out all the myriad logic errors in the article, I simply provided an on-the-record statement that said, "We appreciate publication X’s foray into fiction and look forward to future episodes." Short, decisive, and tweetable, it quickly made its way into broad coverage about the topic and reduced further speculation.
Throw the occasional high, hard fastball
In a world with click-driven economics, there are strong incentives for pundits to be as provocative as possible in their proclamations and opinion pieces. And sparking debate can also help writers build their own brands and their social graph, which is just as important as ad revenue in today’s world. Earlier this year, a writer in a new role used his very first article to frame a view of the technology universe that explicitly excluded Microsoft. In this case, it was opinion, so bringing facts to an opinion debate is not normally winnable. So we chose to challenge the frame itself. This was an interesting one because of our choice of how to publish the response – original intent was to post to comments, but comments were turned off. It didn’t rise to the level of posting to our official channels. So we found another media outlet that was interested and quickly gave them our open letter. It took off like wildfire, and within hours the Techmeme leaderboard showed it outranked the instigating piece. We both landed our message and sent a signal: don’t crowd the plate on our watch.
Don’t complain, explain
This is perhaps the most important one of all. Knowing when to respond must also take into account the strength of your counter-argument. Don’t go into this driven by a desire to vent about being misunderstood. Instead, view it as an opportunity to help people understand. You can’t simply state that coverage is wrong. You must persuade stakeholders to see things in a different light, by using facts, analogies, and evidence.
A few years ago, we had a great opportunity to put this principle into practice. The Economist had offered some opinions on the future prospects for our industry that we didn’t agree with. We let them know, and the outlet offered us a unique opportunity: engage in a public debate on the matter and let readers decide. We jumped at the opportunity, made our case, and won the day. It was a great reminder that frustration doesn’t help you win arguments. Facts do.
The reality is that today’s media landscape affords everyone the opportunity to weigh in with their opinion on how your company is doing. Our opportunity as communicators is to create and use new platforms to respond. With speed, smarts, humor, and facts.
Frank Shaw is corporate VP of corporate communications at Microsoft.