Companies need to take a dose of media savvy


For 15 years now, I've been dealing almost daily with the press. I've been extolled, pilloried, quoted and misquoted. The press has made me. And made me mad as hell.

I've also watched businesses, small and large, deal with the press. It's mostly a story of ineptitude and, often, downright stupidity.

From my experience, heightened by a publicity campaign surrounding my latest book, comes this advice:

* 1. Tell the whole truth. The key word is "whole." Only a few business folks tell outright lies. Most, however, fail to acknowledge warts until confronted with photographic evidence. Reporters by and large are smart, and even the novices have first-rate b.s. detectors. "Truth" that goes only so far is most suspect of all.

* 2. Change your story when the story changes. Things change. Sometimes yesterday's truth deteriorates before your eyes. Sticking to your 12-hour-old or 12-day-old position isn't going to make the new evidence evaporate.

* 3. Don't get worked up about out-of-context quotes. All of life is "out of context." Mary and her group prepare for weeks to make a complex, two-hour presentation to you. Passing Joe in the hall afterward, you reduce her argument to, "Mary says demand looks good for the new widgets." Talk about taking somebody out of context!

Face it, the only story that will make you happy begins: "The brilliant Joe Bloggs gave me an hour of his precious time last Thursday, and here's what he said . . . " (a full transcript follows). Guess what? It ain't gonna happen.

* 4. Return phone calls promptly. Reporters are always on deadline and being hounded by the petty tyrants (i.e., editors) who dominate their caves. If you can understand their "business needs," you'll have made a giant leap forward.

* 5. The media are your customers. In today's environment, with more competitors, more products and more media, the press can be an ally. Treat it as such and you're halfway home. Treat it as an adversary, and you'll get what you asked for.

* 6. Forget corporate guidance. Your plant has a toxic spill. Deal with the media on your own terms. Be forthcoming. Be available. It's your plant, and if you want to be chairman someday, it will be because you rose to the challenge rather than quivered in the bushes at moments like this.

The headquarters flacks are always conservative, interested in covering their backsides. Ignore them. They would have you: (1) act like an idiot; (2) do the unconscionable; and (3) forfeit a golden opportunity.

* 7. Take the long-term view. It's repeat business that counts on the commercial side. And it's continuing relationships that count with your media stakeholders.

So you get roughed up unfairly (as you see it) on a story. What goes around usually comes around. Just as umpires have a way of correcting in the next game for a bad call in this one, so does the press. Get in a huff about today's undeserved whipping -- and you're bound to get worse next time.

* 8. Know that there are jerks in the media. There are crummy customers. And malevolent reporters. Forming a global view based on one or two twits is stupid.

* 9. Cool it, you are fighting city hall. Business has generally given the press the back of its hand. The press is correct to be suspicious. You can't rewrite history (except locally, by carefully building good will with every 23-year-old rookie reporter who gets your business as her first beat).

* 10. Don't take your press releases seriously; the press doesn't. Don't be agitated if your press releases end up in the garbage can. Can you imagine what it's like to read such insipid puffery day after day? All press releases are discounted 90 percent -- which, ordinarily, is as it should be.

* 11. Allow the media access to "real people." Most firms muzzle their first-line people. Mistake! "They," the folks near the action, are seen as far more trustworthy than the chief. Front-line people tend to speak in plain English understandable to their neighbors. So let the reporters have at your people. (Unless, of course, you do have something to hide.)

* 12. Say something fresh! Yes, "they" (the media) are looking for a sound bite. If you've got nothing new (and punchy) to say, don't be surprised when your blah, 30-minute interview gets cut in favor of an inflammatory one-liner by a disaffected former employee.

* 13. Try radio. Radio is a potent medium. Moreover, by its very nature you'll likely get 15 minutes to tell your story instead of 30 seconds on TV or one paragraph in the business pages.

Is all this too optimistic? I don't think so. Shoot straight and remember the long haul -- and you'll have a mostly reliable ally (that will disappoint you from time to time, like all partners in all relationships).

Tom Peters' column is distributed by Tribune Media Service Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad