The Public Relations Door Swings Both Ways
There is a wooden sign posted in the kitchen in my seaside ocean cottage that reads “You Never Know How Many Friends You Have Until You Get A Cottage At The Beach.” How true! When you have a cottage at the beach you have friends you didn’t even know you had. They love to visit because lodging and parking are free, there is access to a beach plus food and drink are plentiful.
Isn’t it interesting, however, that your guests somehow never schedule their visit so that they’re around on the day you have to pack up and leave to go back home? They conveniently leave a day or two earlier, leaving you with the task of sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, showers and commodes, cleaning the grill and perhaps even mowing the lawn. This is not to speak ill of my guests because I certainly would never expect them to help clean. The invite is always ‘no strings attached.’
Such is not the case when the media deal with corporations. The company usually does have a string. And that string is attached to a sign at the company’s front gate that figuratively says, “If you’ve come here to report a story that may reflect poorly on this company, no one is available to talk to you. Go away.”
Hold on a minute! Wasn’t this the same company who just a month ago was our best friend? This was the company that coordinated a food drive that resulted in truckloads of food and personal supplies being sent to flood victims in Louisiana. The company held friendly in-house competitions between departments to see which could collect the most canned and nonperishable goods. The company also gave employees paid time off to man/woman collection sites at local grocery stores.
This was the company whose PR department kept the media appraised of its goodwill efforts every step of the way. The media were flooded with news releases and telephone calls whose general tone was, “Anything you want. Need video of our employees collecting food? Come on over, anytime! Would you like us to inform you of when the trucks actually leave for Louisiana so you can be there? We’ll be sure to let you know. Need an interview with our CEO? Just let us know and we’ll make him available at your convenience.” Can’t you just feel the love? It’s free, positive publicity and the company just can’t get enough of it.
Now let’s fast forward six months when one day all of the news media outlets receive a news release from this company announcing that business conditions are such that the company is moving operations out-of-state and in doing so 1,400 local people will be out of a job. It’s funny how this news release did not offer the media an invitation to come and shoot video tape or take pictures. There was also no offer of a spokesperson to explain the situation. Telephone calls to the company were met with, “We are making no comment beside what is in the press release.” A long-established company is moving out of state, 1,400 local people are out on the street, the city’s tax base takes a substantial hit — and no comment?
Where’s the love? And it gets worse. In the absence of a company spokesperson, the media seek out employees who are about to be let go. Reporters dutifully position themselves outside the plant gates and wait for the shift change in hopes of getting reaction from soon-to-be-out-of-work employees. Invariably, the employees’ response is, “They (the company) told us we can’t talk to the media or our severance package is voided.”
This scenario is not unique to private corporations. Media outlets across the nation faced the same frustration with most local Catholic dioceses during the pedophile priest scandal. When the diocese was conducting a fund drive for Catholic education or for the annual Bishop’s Charity fund drive the church couldn’t have been more accommodating, welcoming with open arms any media outlet who would do a story calling attention to the need within the church that the fund drive was addressing. Spokespersons all the way up to and including the Bishop himself were always available. Can’t you just feel the love? Bless you, my son.
But then one day an organization representing people who had been sexually abused by priests holds a news conference and levels allegations that the diocese has been hiding and protecting pedophile priests for the last 30 years. The media cover the news conference and in the interest of journalistic integrity and fairness seek out a comment or reaction from the diocese. It is at this point we realize that the diocese is much too busy counting their fundraising dollars to talk with us. The silence from the diocese offices is deafening!
The diocese PR office and church officials up to and including the Bishop used every trick in the book to minimize the damage and keep the story out of the media. If only the church knew we were on to their game from the first minute and we watched with amusement knowing they could duck, run and hide only for so long. Eventually, they would have to face the music and the cameras.
A similar ploy was used by officials of a local school district who were asking voters to approve a multi-million dollar school improvement referendum. In the weeks leading up to the vote district officials were only too willing to talk to the media. Media outlets aired stories about school conditions that needed upgrading, they featured parents soliciting votes by telephone and the school superintendent was only too willing to skip lunch in order to state his case to the cameras. Unfortunately, the referendum was soundly defeated on election day. On that evening’s 10 o’clock news reporters were live at school district headquarters — the place where district officials thought they’d be holding a victory party.
Instead, reporters delivered their stories from a half-empty room. No party. Viewers watched with interest as they waited to hear what the district’s reaction to the defeat would be. Strangely, there would be no reaction. One reporter said, “We tried to get someone from the district to talk with us but they were too disappointed to talk and didn’t want to go on camera.” Too disappointed to talk? Hey folks, you lost an election — not your child! Say something!
Sarcasm aside, don’t be the media’s best friend when you need them and then turn your back on the media when they need you. Members of the media have long memories. The next time the media are invited to a fund drive or a voter drive they may not be so willing to go along for the ride.