Monday, May 03, 2004

Bad Story, Part 2 

When a bad story hits, there is much to do. A first step is to look at the reporting closely. Is the story accurate? Is there a gross error somewhere? An attribution that cannot be correct? An insinuation that crosses the line into outright error?

A reporter might be accurate but the person who gave the facts to the reporter might have been inaccurate or using the reporter. This is common in lawsuits. Litigators seek publicity to pressure the other side or sway the jury pool. To get it, they build a package of "facts" and statements that show how deeply their clients have been harmed. By time the reporter talks to the other side, the journalist already has half-written the story. The other side, meanwhile, might not feel free to fire back, especially if it will battle charges in court. Further, the facts might not be as sexy as the allegation. Many a piece on 60 Minutes over the years came directly from litigators who were seeking to put an opponent on the defensive.

The next step is to build a fact sheet or Q&A that asks the worst possible questions and provides facts that refute them or put them in context. There is no percentage for clients in distorting this process: It would haunt them in the media or in the courtroom. Facts without insinuations or aspersions should show how the charges cannot be true. Swinging back with countercharges is good for selling newspapers and boosting TV ratings, but it is lousy for preserving a client's reputation. On the other hand, if a plaintiff is working hard to smear one, it is critical to deliver facts cogently and simply to refute the plaintiff. The brilliant example of this in the last decade was the way General Motors nailed NBC-TV for rigging tests that made gas tanks explode in crash tests. However, it is rare that one can get the goods on a news medium or opposing attorney like that. The facts are seldom that clear.

When stories aren't in error and they look awful, then one should say what the organization will do about it. There is room and justification for radical change: The public wants such action. Are heads rolling? If not, why not? Are injured consumers being recompensed? If not, why not? The CEO has to be willing to say publicly and loudly that "we made a mistake and we are going to fix it."

Finally, one has to speak or at least distribute the facts to the media so they have the other side of the story. The worst case is to get a bad story and to let it sit there while rumor and pressure and new stories build. The client keeps hoping the story's impact will go away. When it doesn't, it is usually too late to do anything. There is no gain in waiting.


Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?