Investigative journalism is getting more complicated. Here's what it means for those under the microscope

As newsrooms have shrunk, non-traditional media and organizations are doing the brunt of investigative reporting. Communicators are adjusting - and pushing back in new ways.

Corporate and crisis communicators have long had sets of best practices to follow when their client or company is being investigated by a media outlet for a story alleging wrongdoing or unethical behavior.

However, both in-house communications leaders and agency executives say they have to be more diligent than ever with a host of new outlets doing investigative journalism – and their long-form pieces are no longer limited by print-era restrictions such as word counts.

Johnson & Johnson and the Red Cross, for instance, have both been the target of investigative reporting by The Huffington Post and nonprofit ProPublica, respectively.

The Huffington Post published chapter by chapter a 58,000-word exposé on J&J with the provocative title, "America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker." Journalist Steven Brill makes the case – using court and internal documents, multimedia interviews, and images – that J&J violated Food and Drug Administration restrictions in its marketing and sale of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal.

The American Red Cross, meanwhile, has been the subject of a series of unflattering articles from ProPublica. The articles included a piece published late last year in partnership with National Public Radio that suggested the organization was more concerned about posturing than actually helping victims of 2012’s Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy.

Both Johnson & Johnson and the Red Cross declined to comment for this article. However, both companies have in past reports "vehemently" disagreed with the conclusions of the respective investigations.

Howard Opinsky, EVP of the US East Region and head of the US corporate practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, notes that while many traditional newsrooms have eliminated investigative units, "investigative journalism has been replaced in some respects by NGOs and nonprofits such as ProPublica."

"I probably get one or two calls a week from clients that are simply trying to understand what this organization is that has contacted them about an investigative report," he says.

Companies must realize that just because it’s not The New York Times or 60 Minutes calling, that doesn’t mean their investigation is without merit or the outlet lacks the ability to prompt widespread coverage, Opinsky adds.

"They will either push out the article themselves via social media, enter into an agreement with a mainstream news organization to co-own the investigation, pitch coverage to mainstream media like in the old days, or do all three of those things," he says. 

The people doing the investigating are also approaching their stories with a wider range of opinions than in the past, with many taking a clear point of view throughout the process.

"There are different kinds of investigative reporters. The approach you take depends, because there are more organizations, foundation-funded journalism and others, who come from an ideological point of view about business," notes Gary Sheffer, VP of strategic comms at General Electric. "There is that caveat to dealing with one of these journalists than dealing with someone from The Wall Street Journal. You have to keep that in mind. You have to have eyes open and hands on."

When a person or organization is making an allegation, communications executives have to resist the temptation to dismiss it or treat it lightly, says Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s corporate VP of corporate communications. "It should be approached with the same attitude and sensitivity that you would take in any crisis situation."

"We've all been in a situation where a reporter has called and says, 'This is what I think you're doing,’ and you go, ‘That's crazy, we would never do that. Sure, we’ll participate [in the story], we have nothing to hide.’ It seems like a reasonable approach, but then it turns out there is something going on somewhere you didn’t know about," he explains. "Or you think, ‘Wow, this sounds negative, and I don’t care all that much,’ so you decide not to participate, only to find out later you should have cared a whole lot more."

Shaw notes that errors are often made at the beginning of the process.

"At the start, you’re usually at an information deficit," he points out. "This is when it’s easiest to make some mistakes."

Communications experts say an internal fact-finding mission can help to determine the best course of action, whether that means sharing no information, some information, or as much information as possible with the outlet.

"It really is very situational in terms of how transparent you want to be with the media investigation," explains Shaw.

Some companies may opt to hold back information, fearing the outlet might twist it in some way, and present it via its own channels or through other media once the original piece publishes. Shaw cautions against such an approach.

"It is important to tell the story yourself, but also for it to be interpreted by the media," he says. "Doing one without the other, or doing one in opposition, can be pretty tricky. If a reputable news agency says one thing, and you say something completely different, the best you can hope for is there will be reasonable doubt."

"You’re best off having your point of view in the original story," Shaw adds.

"Even if you have a story that says we discovered Company X doing this, it could then say Company Z changed its approach when informed. At least you get credit for moving fast as opposed to something like, ‘Company X didn’t comment,’" he continues. "If you’re eventually going to make a change based on new information, making it rapidly is a wise thing to do."

Digital formats
Comms pros say digital technology has changed how investigative reporting is presented, allowing written content to be seamlessly blended with everything from infographics and video to audio clips and screen shots of sensitive documents.

In the case of Johnson & Johnson, The Huffington Post also serialized the exposé over a number of weeks, enabling the article to be novel-like in its narrative and to live longer in the news cycle since it could be digested in smaller chunks rather than all at once.

Yet digital media also makes it possible for the subjects of investigative pieces to fight back.

"With digital, you can tell a counter story in its full complexity through publishing your own materials," says Opinsky. "I’ve seen clients even go as far as to record the interviews they’d done with investigative entities, and publish the full content of them to guard against information being used selectively."

He also notes Walmart’s pushback against a New York Times column last year, making corrections to it – both grammatical and factual – in red ink.

"I’ve also seen more and more companies ‘grade’ and fact check investigative work," he adds.

Speed is also of the essence, notes Sheffer.

"You have to prepare to tell your own story using your own platforms, including to your own people, who will read these things when they appear. You should be ready to go as fast as you can when you see something that needs context," he says. "I tend to let things appear and give people the benefit of a doubt before we think something needs to be addressed, but prepare your team internally, your leadership, and the process you have been going through."

Doug Petkus, SVP on Ketchum’s issues and crisis team, says companies can take aggressive measures if they feel they have been treated unfairly in an investigative report. However, he says companies should simply pick up the phone and have conversations with the journalist throughout the process.

"If the company feels there is information that is incorrect or misinterpreted, they should probably call the reporter and have a frank discussion, because this is probably not going to be a one-time exchange," he explains. "The parties will be in their respective positions for longer than this moment."

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