NEWS ANALYSIS: The pros and cons of fighting back

The right to reply to accusations in the media has come under the spotlight with both Tesco and the Church of Scientology hitting back at TV programmes recently. Hannah Marriott looks at the art of counter-attack.

Right of reply is an increasingly hot topic in the PR industry, with two incidents in the past fortnight showing how it is possible to come out fighting in the face of investigative journalism.

Last week, Tesco hit back at BBC1 show Whistleblower, which accused employees of putting customers’ health at risk by selling out-of-date produce.

The supermarket giant issued a strong statement saying that, in five months spent ‘on a journalistic fishing trip’, the BBC could only come up with a few ‘isolated incidents’ to produce a programme that paints a ‘deeply false picture of our business’.

As well as issuing this to the press, Tesco mounted the statement on Newscounter – the recently launched online ‘right to reply’ service for PROs (PRWeek, 3 May) – and posted footage of workers registering disbelief at any wrongdoing on the corporate website.

Planning the counter-attack
Similarly, the week before, the Church of Scientology helped ensure that hundreds of thousands of people had seen a pre-emptive clip of Panorama journalist John Sweeney erupting ‘like an exploding tomato’ at a member of the religion during filming of a potentially damaging documentary.


Even more unusually, the clip became a key part of a DVD produced by the Scientologists and sent out to MPs, businesses and media organisations, calling the BBC’s standards of journalism into question.

These two recent cases have echoes of Ryanair’s strategy. The airline hit back at allegations in an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches last February, when it posted all corr­­e­spondence between the BBC and Ryanair on its website, attempting to discredit the programme before it had aired.

Ryanair head of communications Peter Sherrard says the campaign was successful – the airline felt that it was necessary to ‘make the facts available to the public’, given that ‘the programme makers refused to give Ryan­air an unedited interview to respond to the false claims made’.

Crisis experts are divided on the merits of this new ‘guerrilla’ approach, with some wondering if it simply fans the flames of bad publicity. John Stonborough – whose eponymous consultancy specialises in managing ‘hostile’ media – says the risk of adopting this approach is that you are doing the work of the broadcaster’s publicity department for them.

‘The ideal is that the story just vani­shes,’ he says, adding: ‘Putting all the information on the website gave ­journalists the documentation they needed to write their stories, as well as alerting them to the programme days in ­advance.’

But whenever the counter-attack is made, challenging a programme with the credibility of Panorama, or an institution like the BBC, is not a task to be undertaken lightly.

Regester Larkin director Tim Johnson warns: ‘If the decision to fight back is made, then the organisation has to be 100% sure that the allegations made are without foundation. In fighting back they are perpetuating the conflict and therefore perpetuating coverage .’

And, says Kissmann Langford consultant Paul Naish, ‘when something like this happens, the first thing you think is will your stakeholders be influenced by this attack?’

When the Scientologists attempted to attack Panorama, the press derided and criticised them, and described the journalist involved as ‘experienced’ (The Telegraph) and ‘award-winning’ (Mail on Sunday).

But many crisis comms experts would say that the reaction of the mass media was practically irrelevant to the campaign. ‘They’ve got a worldwide audience of members who would expect them to defend themselves – it doesn’t matter what some idle punter thinks of them,’ argues Stonborough.

One of the Scientologists behind the campaign, Hubbard Foundation direc­tor Bob Keenan, is similarly dismissive of the media reaction: ‘The press is not my public – the public is. Whatever the press said, the response we got through letters and in churches was positive.’

The experts agree that if an organisation chooses to go down the guerrilla route, a highly prepared spokesperson must make a compelling case.

‘Viewers want to see a human being who cares – and spokespeople must be trained to stick to their guns, to soften the audience by saying sorry first, then hitting them with a positive message,’ says independent crisis specialist and media trainer Michael Bland. ‘Being defensive, argumentative or pompous is counter-productive,’ he adds.

Johnson argues: ‘It’s not enough to “feel” aggrieved, audiences need proof that is easy to understand and they can relate to. Audiences don’t want to be told – they want to be shown.’
Organisations can be wary of providing a spokesperson if they know that they are taking a hard line, and are bound to be treated accordingly by the interviewer. But providing a spokesman, rather than a written statement, does not always lead to a lack of control, according to Stonborough.

More subtle ways
Being well-versed in BBC guidelines (if relevant), Ofcom regulations and the Press Complaints Commission code can help PROs cajole broadcasters in more subtle ways, he says. ‘Very often we will audio-tape the interview, write up our own transcript, and then mark the transcript up, telling the producers which sections we want to be on the programme – in order to follow the BBC code they have to follow our wishes and reflect our views,’ he says.

As well as media training their CEO or another spokesperson, companies must communicate with their own employees throughout, ensuring they understand its point of view and are aware that the programme is to be aired.

As Maxim Strategies MD Christopher Wigdor says: ‘Employees can be a company’s best ambassadors – or its most devastating critics. Employers must be absolutely certain that they are behind them. It would only take one or two employees to go to the News of the World with a follow-on story for disaster to really strike.’

To find out more about the editorial rules the BBC must adhere to, go to

Listen to more of John's tips on defending reputations in this week's podcast


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