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  • Writer's pictureDex McLuskey

How to Piss Off Journalists and Generate Negative Coverage

WARNING: This article contains copious amounts of sarcasm.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

By Dex McLuskey

Many public relations operatives, especially those who are less experienced or have never done a stint in a newsroom, think they hold the cards when it comes to dealing with the media.

They reckon they can deploy their manipulation skills and savvy to stonewall or charm reporters, to lead them in the direction they want them to go by providing them with tasty tidbits they want to be made public or by withholding salient details that they’d rather keep hidden.

You hear corporate communications people saying things like ``we need to control the message,” and “we should soak up the oxygen in the room.” (See footnote)

Makes me cringe.

They fail to grasp the one critical point that means they will never hold sway when dealing with reporters — they’re not the one holding the pen.

The journalist has the power because they get to decide what they will write or omit, how they’ll write it, and how, when and where the information will be distributed.

PRs who think a reporter will stop digging if they don’t get a response are deluding themselves. Obstacles just make them more determined. The only difference now is that, instead of taking the opportunity to put your side of the story (for there are always at least two and often more), your only input will be a pejorative: ``Itsy Bitsy Inc. didn’t respond to requests seeking comment.”

Ignoring reporters is one way to irritate them and increase your chances of generating negative coverage, but there are many more.

One of the best is to have them go through their request in excruciating detail during a phone call and then ask them to put it all in an e-mail along with the questions they want covered. This is a surefire way to waste a reporter’s scarcest resource — time. No journalist worth their salt has ever — ever — missed a deadline. By adding to their workload unnecessarily and putting more time pressure on them, you are not endearing yourself.

Asking for written questions in advance also sets off an alarm bell that the responses will be superlative-laden, self-aggrandizing, distilled, sterile, PR-approved puffery rather than honest, human and natural replies — you know, like the ones you get in any other conversation. On the off-chance that the reporter doesn’t just move on to another source, you’ve significantly increased the chances of them cherry-picking through your replies to find the only five words that don’t amount to corporate gibberish. Still, this option is always preferable to wise, pithy, witty observations or anecdotes that engage, entertain and inform readers (I did warn you about the sarcasm).

By and large, reporters will move heaven and earth to accommodate a source, incurring the ire of their spouse by skipping a social event, moving meetings, waking at 2 am to take a call because they’re on deadline and you’re in Japan, telling their 8-year-old kid “sorry, honey, but you’ll have to walk two miles to your basketball game tonight because mommy has an interview.” OK, maybe that last one is excessive — I set a one-mile limit.

So if you really want to raise a reporter’s hackles, cancel a call or meeting at the last minute, turn up late or, better yet, don’t answer your phone or dial in at all. Then give them a solitary one-hour time slot nine days later when you can reconvene, and when you do connect for the rescheduled 30-minute call, tell them you can only spare 10 minutes.

Another way you can try to control the message and soak up the oxygen in the room is by trying to bury an unfavorable announcement by scheduling a release for a time that you think will garner the least coverage.

This can backfire spectacularly.

Possibly the most notorious example was when Jo Moore, then an aide to a minister in the UK’s Labour government, sent a memo to her boss at 2:55 pm British time on Sept. 11, 2001, saying: "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury,” which just beggars belief.

But companies often think this can be a terrific tactic. I would urge you, however, to never make an announcement, good or bad, on a Friday afternoon — especially in summer, winter, spring or autumn. This is exactly when every reporter is thinking about well-earned martinis, driving to the beach, the gig they’re going to, family time or whatever they cherish most.

And you just ruined it.

So even if you discover the cure for cancer, if you announce it at 4pm on a Friday, the headline could well read: “Teeny Tiny Corp. Ignores Plight of People With Heart Disease.”

In 2001, while working as a tech reporter for Bloomberg News in London, I got a call early one Sunday from the weekend editor saying a rival had a big story about one of my companies and I had to come in to match it (UK companies have a long-standing tradition of spoon-feeding juicy stories to favored Sunday newspapers). So instead of heading to Manchester for the Arsenal-Tottenham FA Cup soccer semifinal, I found myself in a near-empty bureau all day chasing leads (it’s especially difficult to track people down on weekends). You can guess what the tone of that article was.

Another surefire way to get under the skin of a reporter or editor is to demand that they correct anything that isn’t 100 percent accurate. Because journalists are by nature and training studious and meticulous people, most errors are trivial or immaterial — does it really matter if you were head of global equities or global head of equities at Mega Massive Capital LLC five years ago?

If the slip isn’t egregious enough to cause you or your organization some genuine harm, do yourself a favor, channel your inner Elsa and let it go. Save your ammo for the fights that truly matter.

But here’s the absolute doozy, the one thing guaranteed to get any reporter training their laser-guided sights on you from that point forward: wait until the end of the interview before saying: “Of course, you can’t quote me. That was all off the record.”

It’s a fool’s errand to think you can control what journalists publish, but you can influence how they portray you if you avoid the sins cited above. It’s not rocket science — if someone treats you poorly, you don’t react well. Why would a reporter be any different?

But a more critical point is that, sooner or later, all organizations experience a crisis, which doesn’t have to be on the scale of a Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal to be harmful. But if you spend your time making enemies out of reporters in some misguided belief that you can control the message and soak up the oxygen in the room rather than treating media relations as a savings account into which you can continuously bank good will, then when a real crisis surfaces (as it undoubtedly will), you won’t find many reporters and editors on your side.

Just when it really matters.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Here are some other pointers:

-- Ask for a deadline then wait until it has passed to say sorry you couldn’t help this time, but hopefully you can next time.Say you'll do something and then don’t. If it's important, they’ll come back to you.

-- Bury all press contact information, head shots, logos and other key media details deep in your website, preferably on a page about your community outreach program or some such. Reporters are inquisitive by nature, so give them a challenge. They’ll appreciate it.

-- Make busy, time-poor reporters come to you, keep them waiting in reception way beyond the agreed meeting time (because it makes you look important and their deadlines don’t matter) and then refuse to do the interview unless they give you full copy approval before publication.

-- Call reporters to pitch a story that you think is big, when to them it merits a NIB (news in brief) at most, for example when you appoint a new head of sales. Apart from the head of comms (who has to create a report for management on the coverage they got to justify their existence) and the new head of sales, no one cares.

-- To really build credibility for you and your organization, don’t under any circumstances do any research into the topic that a reporter or outlet covers. Pitch real estate stories to health care titles. They love that.

Footnote: Oxygen is the third-most abundant element in the universe by mass. Diatomic oxygen gas constitutes 20.8% of the Earth's atmosphere, while in the form of compounds including oxides, it makes up almost half of the Earth's crust. Oxygen also accounts for nearly 90 percent of the weight of the oceans. All of which suggests it would be quite a feat for anyone to soak up all the oxygen in a room.


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