After years of training CEOs and senior executives how to get the best outcomes from media interviews, I found out that learning lessons at the hands of the tabloid media isn’t just for the uninitiated. Even when you think you’re not near the kitchen, you can still get burned.
Back in 2005, I was invited to chair a panel at a pharmaceutical industry conference on the industry’s reputation. After a couple of weeks of discussions, the organisers and I decided that it would be best if there was a blanket ban on any media attending as we wanted the session to be a robust debate. All good you might think.
I wanted to kick-start the room with a bit of a sarcastic review of some recent goings on. “Yes, yes, this is the usual media beat-up that we all know and love as public relations people.” However, at the heart of it – I’m a marketer with a strong belief in ‘What’s in it for me’ from the customer’s perspective and I wanted to push people a little out of their comfort zone to say, “hey, these are real people that are complaining that we’re not doing a good enough job! These are our customers and we should be paying better attention to them. What are we going to do about our trashy reputation?”
What followed was a disappointing discussion where several of the more vocal folks in the room thought the only customer that mattered was the government and its Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (the whole-sale buyer if you like). I have to say, I was rather saddened by the response as there are so many other key players in pharma marketing, not the least of which are the patients (and the voters in of the aforementioned governments). I came away thinking the industry’s reputation was in worse shape than even I’d dreamed was possible.
But then, imagine my profound joy when a tabloid journalist from Auntie called saying she had a tape of the whole debate and would use it however she wished unless I gave her an interview to put my side. I politely declined – there was little point. It was to be a hatchet job no matter what I said. I did however, have a prepared crisis plan just in case the piece spread to other media outlets.
When the piece went to air, my intro led the story – dripping in sarcasm – with my key points about the importance of patients carefully edited out. The piece played quite a few times across several time slots. Bugger – of all the things to be repeated. What can I say – BURNED!!
So what might you learn from my heinous experience?
- At any event – live or online, assume there will be journalists there – even if you’re promised it’s a closed session. In my case, the ABC journalist wasn’t there at the time either, but a friend of hers was, taping everything that was said. These days phone technology makes it exceptionally easy for anyone to record/video almost anything.
- We tell clients, nothing said to or done with the media is ever off the record. These days that spreads much further afield to just about any event, email, instant message or web comment. Don’t say anything publicly that you wouldn’t be happy hearing yourself say on TodayTonight.
- Watch your tone. I came off as cynical and uncaring – when what I’d been really aiming for was concerned.
- Start with your key message – up front and centre. Again I was aiming for concerned but it took me a bit of time to get there. Start with the end in mind.
- Should that favourite tabloid journo or blogger come to call with something damning they’re planning on revealing to the world at large, the next thing you should do is sketch out your crisis plan – or better still call a senior PR person who has arm’s length perspective to sketch it out with you. In the midst of a media fire – they’ll bring a level of calm, think of things you don’t necessarily think of in a crisis and can act as the media’s first point of contact – which often buys you the most important thing of all – time to think before you speak.
If you’ve had a similar experience that you’d like to share, please leave a comment.