Many a morning I have opened a business newspaper and have been startled – to put it very mildly – by a front page story on a client which to the best of my knowledge had no basis in reality. On investigation in almost all instances the story went as follows:
Reporter calls company’s CEO: “I have some significant news about your company, I cannot reveal my sources, I want to speak to you or your Finance Director right now or in the next half hour to confirm or deny. I file my story this evening in any case.”
CEO replies: “ Please speak to our PR representatives.”
CEO tells PR firm: “This Reporter will be contacting to you. We want you to make sure he does not put this story out tomorrow. We are not ready to talk. Some critical details are still being worked and we need to get a sign off from the board. We need five more days. And we would prefer to share this news more widely rather than run with an exclusive. In five days, post the general release I would like you to arrange a meeting with this writer. Just make sure this happen.”
The PR firm goes into a tailspin. They of course had no idea that any such thing was brewing in the company. In house corporate communications never said a word. Chances are they did not know themselves.
So now it is between the PR executive and the reporter. These two know each other very well but this time their confrontation is likely to be bitter and pointless. The reporter sees most PR executives as “miserable blockers”, the executives see all such uncompromising reporters as “irresponsible.” So the evening comes and goes with a lot of phone calls back and forth and many tough words. The next morning the front page has the story as promised. The leading business daily is the only paper with this news. This is a scoop. Unfortunately much of it is inaccurate and premature.
The CEO is now up in flames. And burning with him is his Finance Director. In essence this is embargoed information. How did it get out? Media moles inside the company? Entirely possible. Moles inside the regulatory body? Completely possible. Net result however, a scoop but not the whole truth.
The CEO rings up his favorite scapegoat, the head of the PR firm and blasts away. The PR firms rings up the reporter and says that the company has just told them that what was published is almost all entirely incorrect. They will now be sending out a general release to set the record straight. When the real story comes out your paper will have to carry a rejoinder since you did not carry the real facts.
When the real story is told there are elements of truth, some incorrect figures some faulty assumptions but directionally all there. So the paper is satisfied that it was not entirely wrong. The company is angry at the inability of its PR firm to manage the media. The PR firm wonders whether they should be entertaining this writer some more. The writer is probably unfazed as is the editor….rejoinders can be given on page thirteen.
My question to the media is: can scoops, speculation and sensationalism be managed a little differently?
My plea to CEOs is: could we at least consider some of the urgent demands of media with greater alacrity, because often we hide behind embargoes when we don’t need to.
My words of caution to corporate and other moles is: this strategy of keeping key media persons on your side can turn around and bite you one day when you least want it.
Question: do the new breed of debate and discussion based television programs have a point to make?
On the face of it they appear to be in a shocking state of incoherence. Powerful subjects, strong charismatic anchors and yet a viewer is often left with an impression of almost non-stop babble. The thrusting and parrying and finger pointing make for incredible drama but little or no intellectual sense. Could it be that the participants are chosen only for their public profile and less for their argumentation and articulation skills?

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