Companies must grasp fact that media are stakeholders

Hewlett-Packard's PR problem is what everyone in the industry wants to talk about now, specifically how the company has handled the crisis.

Hewlett-Packard's PR problem is what everyone in the industry wants to talk about now, specifically how the company has handled the crisis.

There is a broader topic that this brings to the forefront, namely the question of how companies handle the media that covers them. In its efforts to root out leakers on its board by spying on board members and journalists, HP has faced public repudiation. But behind boardroom doors across the country, there is no doubt some CEOs are wishing they could do the same thing, but only if they could get away with it. Even while many certainly denounced the tactics, they commiserate with the motivation.

Leaks are considered part of the currency of reporting. Few great stories are free of information that has been passed on by someone at some time who wasn't supposed to do that. Woodward and Bernstein and Deep Throat occupy iconic roles in the history of journalism and are often cited as the de facto reason why leakers should be embraced, rather than reviled.

The average CEO will generally fail to see that big picture and the importance of a free press in a democracy when dealing with someone on his or her staff passing information to the media. In my experience, there are still a good number of corporate executives outside communications who resent the investigative nature of reporting and who are desperate to find some way to have more control in the relationship. GM famously pulled its ads from the LA Times in response to what it felt was unfair coverage of the company, a move that was denounced by communicators, but no doubt applauded by its corporate peers.

Corporate media relations pros reside in the unenviable place between company and media. And as the media landscape grows more and more fragmented, and control is even more elusive than ever, the tendency to opt out of the dialogue with reporters is greater than ever. One senses that the tolerance of senior executives for developing long-term relationships with reporters is wearing thin, not helpfully reinforced by turnover in the media outlets themselves and the pressures that journalists are under to produce more stories is less time. Add to this already unstable mix the leaking of confidential company information and constructive engagement is liable to break down.

There needs to be a better explanation for the importance of the media as a stakeholder than simply the PR benefits when a story goes the company's way. Sure, that's easier said than done. As long as the industry continues to use positive media clips as the primary means of measurement, the perception of PR's value to the company will be based on that. But the real problem is that the value of the media relationship to the C-suite also comes to be based on that measurement - positive clips, positive engagement. The challenge is to understand and communicate how media coverage of all kinds plays a valuable and long-term role in building and sustaining reputation.

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