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The Marcus Perspective

BE NICE TO THE MEDIA
Or Else You’ll Turn Into A Pumpkin -- Or Something

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Your mother raised you to be nice to everyone, and you’ve always been taught to be nice to journalists. Answer their questions. Tell them everything. Stop what you’re doing and cooperate. Be polite.

That’s the conventional wisdom. You’ve even heard that in these pages. But are there ever times to tell the media to bug off, and leave you alone? Maybe.

On the face of it, the media seems to have all the power. They speak to a lot more people than you do, and they do it with what the general public accepts, usually unquestioningly and with little reason, as objectivity.

Trade lore abounds with stories of a press spurned. Back in the days of the famous columnist Walter Winchell, any celebrity -- or press agent -- who didn’t cooperate with him might have done well to buy a grocery store for a new career. One press agent who promised him an exclusive, only to find that another columnist had inadvertently picked up the story, was driven from her otherwise successful career.

Virtually every company, and every marketing or public relations executive, has a story of being trashed by the press -- sometimes despite following all the rules and cooperating extensively.

But then, there are stories of companies that refused to deal with segments of the press, and are still around. Mobil refused to talk to Wall Street Journal reporters for years. There is no empty crater where Mobil once was; they still thrive.

There may indeed be times, then, when being cooperative with the media is not the best thing you can do for your firm.

If you’re dealing with a hostile reporter or publication, and believe you’re in a no-win situation, you may have more to gain than to lose by refusing to cooperate.

If you’re dealing with a publication whose editor thinks the publications more important than it really is, and you know you’re not going to get a fair shake anyway, why waste your time?

If you’re asked to comment about a competitor, or about a situation in your industry to which you’re ancillary, and there’s any chance that your comment may be misinterpreted or even misreported, “no comment” is a great response.

There are many comparable situations, but they all add up to one thing -- blind obedience to all rules, particularly the rules of marketing, doesn’t always make sense.

The rules of media relations aside, the governing factor should be the well-being of your firm. There are values to public relations, obviously, and there times when, despite the negative aspect of the story, you have an obligation to tell your side. But not always, and not universally.

Frequently, the press will trash a company. A few years ago, a major public relations firm took a beating on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Conventional wisdom at the time was that because of the story and the place in which it appeared, the firm was through. It didn’t happen that way.

After a flurry of trade discussion, and possibly the loss of a potential client or two (no current clients were lost), the firm continued to thrive. Why? Because one story, positive or negative, doesn’t have much effect. Only an ongoing campaign, positive or negative, has sustaining results.

So if you know that you’re going to take a beating no matter what you say or do, or if you know that the reporter is unlettered or unknowledgeable in the subject and is only passing through the beat, or if you know that commenting is going to get you involved in something that may turn out to be flat, stale and unprofitable to you, then tell the media to bug off.

If you know that a reporter is misrepresenting to you what he or she is writing in order to get your participation in a story that you might otherwise be reticent about, or if that reporter has done that to you in the past, you’re perfectly right to decline.

In fact, participating in a roundup story should be done cautiously anyway, with you asking the reporter as many questions as he or she asks you. And if you do consider participating, take notes of what you’re being told about the nature of the story. You can even tape the interview, and should if you can. You may want to complain later.

The media has an inalienable right to pursue. They don’t have an inalienable right to catch. There’s a difference between being firm and declining and being rude. Rudeness is somebody else’s game. Declining firmly and politely may very well be the way for you to win your game.

Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. Copyright 2010 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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