OP-ED: Learning how media works can stimulate CEOs to talk

The argument to convince senior executives that they need to talk to the media is five syllables long: "The media sucks!"

The argument to convince senior executives that they need to talk to the media is five syllables long: "The media sucks!"

I'm sure most of us would get a nod of agreement from our CEOs on this groundbreaking thesis, but that alone won't get you where you need to go. Getting your leadership to understand the media today will go a long way in winning them over on the need to talk - and why chickening out is self-defeating. There are five characteristics that I'd recommend calling out for this purpose: The media is a huge vacuum. I'm not talking about a civilized Hoover upright from the 1950s. I'm thinking along the metaphorical lines of a 21st century hi-tech Shop Vac that will pick up anything - 24/7. Cable TV and the internet are at the heart of this mighty beast. It will work to be filled whether you like it or not. We have to deal with it. The media is addicted to speed. Competitive pressure drives news outlets to just "get the story out." Remember Mark Twain's famous line, "A lie can go half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on." Little did he know that, with the telegraph, he had it easy! Just watch CNN Headline News and you can read news on the ticker line that has yet to be covered in the newscast. Or consider that the time stated after the headline on most news stories on the internet is measured in minutes, as in "two minutes and ten seconds ago." Media balance is biased toward imbalance. This is a phenomenon that, in the auto industry, I find particularly vexing. The line between op-eds and news has always been blurry, but now it's being obliterated. Let me explain: I live and work in Detroit - an "evil empire" known for poor quality, low productivity, high costs, and unsafe vehicles. We jam "gas guzzling" SUVs down the throats of unwilling Americans. Our goal is nothing less than the ruin of the environment and leaving the world a barren wasteland for our children. Fortunately, Detroit is soon destined for extinction, largely due to the overwhelming superiority of our competitors, known as "the Japanese." (Just read, The End of Detroit, written by a journalist from The New York Times to get the full "story.") This is what many in the media would have you believe. You'd never guess that the North American-based auto industry in Detroit - which is responsible for more than 4% of the US GDP - is the home team. News crosses the line to entertainment. (You really could call it "news-tainment.") Unfortunately, popular culture today favors public displays of pain and suffering. Just turn to any "reality TV show." Watch people eat bugs and wage psychological battle in contrived situations that are far from any reality - all for our viewing pleasure. The 24/7 news beast follows this formula. And, virtually any news story on product liability will bear this out. In the mid-1990s at Chrysler, we fought the media on a contrived safety issue that the liftgate latches on our minivans "popped open," putting occupants (that are supposed to be belted in their seats) at risk. Our CEO at the time (an engineer) directed that we fight the issue because the facts were on our side. However, we learned, as had others before us, that in this media environment, hard evidence is not always the best defense. Lazy reporting is OK reporting. This one, I'm sure, drives us all nuts. During the recent Democratic primary, Sen. John Edwards championed a healthcare reform plan to help provide "affordable coverage." Now, what is one of the biggest drivers of healthcare costs? Lawsuits that inflate malpractice insurance costs. Yet Edwards is a plaintiff's attorney who has made his mark and money doing malpractice cases. Would somebody look into that? So, my five points leave us with an image of the media as a not balanced, often lazy, but mildly entertaining vacuum that is addicted to speed. The reality is that unfiltered information now flows freely. It is subject to exploitation by those whose agendas don't include helping your company or, more important, your customers. It can move so fast that acting in a purely reactive communications mode will never be effective. Smart companies and organizations get a handle on this by engaging their customers, employees, stakeholders, communities, advocate groups, and any other interested parties in a dialogue that is consistent, honest, and meaningful. The risky strategy is to do otherwise.
  • Jason Vines is the Chrysler Group's VP of corporate communications.

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