Where do the unwritten rules of PR that surface again and again, but often have no factual basis, come from?
Here are some of the greatest myths of media relations and the truth behind them.
1. Never say ‘no comment’
This myth might hold true most of the time, but years ago I worked on a major acquisition for a client that proved this myth wrong. It was a hush-hush, cloak-and-dagger ordeal with late-night calls from halfway around the world. The media got wind of it and called the CEO, who turned the call over to me.
I was young at the time and fully believed the prevailing wisdom that you should never say “no comment.” The CEO was firm. He screamed at me to tell them “no comment.” I explained that the cardinal rule of PR is that saying you don’t have a comment creates enmity with the media and allows them tell their own story. We should at least put together a noncommittal response, I urged.
The CEO bellowed from halfway around the world: “Nothing I do is noncommittal. The world will respect us more for not talking now, and then telling the full story at a time and place of our convenience.”
I said “no comment,” and he was right. The media frenzy grew in the days and weeks that followed, and we leveraged the interest into a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal. The media had a stone wall that it desperately wanted to climb over—and eventually did—but on our terms and at the right time for the client.
2. Journalists play by prescribed rules
No, they don’t. I learned this when I represented Jeff Lurie, who purchased the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994. Members of the media wanted to get to him, but he holed himself up far from the madness of the Philadelphia media. A big-time, national TV reporter called me, and he was livid—screaming. When he told me I was finished in the business, I asked him why.
“Because I traveled all the way to Los Angeles to interview your client, and he tells me you killed the interview.” I assured him that I hadn’t killed the interview. I told him I didn’t even know about it, but he kept going. “Why would you waste my time flying to Los Angeles if he’s not doing the interview?”
I finally broke, saying, “I didn’t kill your interview, and I don’t know why you are in Los Angeles.” With that he laughed. “I am not in Los Angeles. I was just trying to get you to tell me where in the world he is. Guess it’s not L.A.”
3. Don’t ask reporters about the scoop they have on your client
There’s a notion that the press won’t tell you the news they have on your client, whether it’s good or bad. A few years ago I worked on a high-stakes story with a government contractor. I was defending him against false allegations when a national consumer reporter called.
He was hot on the story and ready to take it national. When I got on the phone, the first thing I said was, “Hey, John, what do you know, who have you spoken to, and what questions do you need answered?” With that, he shared every incriminating fact he had collected.
He gave me his entire game plan for the story simply because I asked. I now knew exactly how to handle my defense. We countered each claim with independent experts and research. The story, while still harsh, had a counterpoint to each allegation to dampen any damage.
4. Don’t try to negotiate for better coverage
One time, a reporter wrote an awful story that was a complete assault on my client’s business. It was full of hyperbole and inaccurate facts, but the reporter saw it as a career stepping stone. He wanted to take on one of the country’s most powerful real estate developers, make some noise, and win employee of the month in the newsroom.
My team and I spent hours documenting each mistake. The client then told me, “I want another article of equal length, this time with my side of the story. I don’t want a retraction. I don’t want a correction. I want to have the same impact this article had on my business, only this time, positively.”
I explained how that was impossible because the reporter had used incorrect facts. The most the newspaper would do was print a correction. It’s a breach of journalistic standards to write a make-up article. The client was livid. “Why am I negotiating with you?” he asked. “I got here by asking for the obscene and settling for the outrageous.”
We sat down with the newspaper editors. They agreed the story had factual mistakes, and they offered to print corrections. I bellowed and blustered, saying, “This article wrecks my client’s business, and the make-up is a page 10 correction?” Nervously, I shot the payload. “We want the same front-page exposure, but this time with the right story.”
The editors didn’t want to consider this suggestion. They called it unethical, if I remember correctly. As I walked out, however, the editor stopped me and told me to keep him updated; he would help. A month later I saw a positive, front-page story about a tier-two project my client was developing in another state.
5. The media is a bunch of liberal intellectuals, especially The New York Times
Years ago, a client came to my team with a hearing aid specifically designed for hunters. It had “politically incorrect” written all over it. I was concerned about its in-your-face, Ted Nugent, “kill more deer” kind of positioning.
We carefully chose our media targets, and left The New York Times off the list. The client asked why. We explained that it is an East Coast newspaper that doesn’t understand hunting, and it would never give the hearing aid fair coverage. He still wanted to try. “I will take the fallout,” I remember him saying.
So, we sent the media kit in a blaze orange box with faux shot gun blasts on the side to The New York Times. I worried about calling the outdoor reporter, as I imagined that her idea of roughing it was being without room service in the Hamptons.
When I finally got through, she laughed and told me she had been waiting for my call. She loved the product. She had tested if herself that fall during deer season and had brought down a big buck. The resulting story ran half a page, with photos of her using the product while holding up her quarry’s limp, dead head. Elitist? I don’t think so.
Somewhere, someone continues to write the rules of public relations. I admit that I have tried to live up to them at times.
Breaking rules has always been a part of me, though, and it’s a good thing, because otherwise I would have lived a limited life of lesser service to clients who deserve so much more.