Thursday, 30 July 2009

When it all goes horribly wrong: six old world rules for handling a dispute with a journalist

These are in fact, the six things that you shouldn’t do online if you find that the business you represent is caught in the midst of a row with a journalist. These apply, in my view, whether or not the journalist is right, wrong or whether there are shades of grey. What I have learned over time is that all disagreements with the media ought to be handled privately until such time as the matter is resolved or until you are clear that there is no resolution. At that point, you can review your options, having gained distance and perspective. There is no place in the rapid-fire worlds of digital media or social networking for anti-social networking.

With very few exceptions, journalists act with integrity and pride. Questioning that pride and integrity publicly is a very bad idea. The media industry and the methods of engagement are changing at an unparalleled rate and a new generation of digital PR professionals is on the rise. There is still much to learn from old-school media relations, though, and I offer this list as a battle-scarred veteran of many skirmishes with the national media on behalf of brands and as someone with a foot in both the old-school and new-school camps.

1. NEVER engage in a public debate with a journalist if you are a brand guardian, especially if you are refuting the legitimacy of their criticisms of your brand. This will not end well.

2. DO NOT see a conversation with a journalist in a public forum as an evenly-matched contest, especially if you are conversing about something you disagree on. At best you will win the battle but lose the war. You’ll be marked down as a trouble-maker – and the only value to a journalist of a trouble maker is the negative news value.

3. Relationships with journalists that have an element of acrimony to them should be developed and improved at all costs, but only IN PRIVATE.

4. Journalists are representatives of media organisations and they are bound by all sorts of processes for fact-checking, due diligence and testing for libel or defamation. THEY DO NOT MAKE NEGATIVE ASSERTIONS LIGHTLY. Think eight times and check with others before you react or respond – and again, when you do so, do it directly and privately.

5. Do not personalise your unhappiness with a journalist or impugn his/her honesty publicly. They will fight back and will MAKE MATTERS CONSIDERABLY WORSE.

6. Bear in mind that if you are mad about what a journalist has said about your brand, your level of crossness is usually directly related to their clout. If you wreck the relationship in public, it is very difficult for either side to find a way back. YOU lose a potentially powerful advocate. THEY simply move on to the next story, having perhaps had another go at your brand to validate their position.

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