What would you do in this media relations situation?

Say a reporter accidentally records you saying something you don’t want the public to hear. There are three ways to handle the situation.

The season finale of HBO’s “Veep,” which aired at the beginning of June, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do if I were in such a situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concluded an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walked away, Meyer and her staff began discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors, and insulted the donors’ thriftiness. The staff even gave their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as Meyer and her staff finished their conversation, they realized the reporter accidentally left his phone behind—on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president—and it was still recording. The reporter, who realized his mistake, was on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

The staff quickly realized how much trouble the campaign would be in if the recording got out—small-money donors would pull their contributions, and people would see the campaign as elitist.

The staff weighed their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter entered the office and collected his phone before they could execute their plan, and (spoiler alert) the “GUMMIs” conversation does indeed cause unflattering headlines.

That made me wonder: What would I do?

The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use the material.

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence.

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs, but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter.

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material recorded on the tape after he left the room as off the record.

The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made before the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the taped party’s consent (which might even be illegal in some states).

The reporter’s leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been intentional, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an implicit or explicit threat regarding future access: “Publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.” That’s the “stick.” The “carrot” of offering increased access could also work.

Brad Phillips is author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.


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