Media Confrontation: A Flexible Response (1989)
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Media Confrontation: A Flexible Response (1989)

"In recent years the press has grown increasingly adversarial towards the peo­ple or institutions it covers," says Schmertz. "Business has two choices: it can allow the press to do whatever it wants or it can confront the press when confrontation is neces

Paul Holmes


In December 1973, several months into the Arab oil embargo and the ensuing energy crisis that wrought havoc through­out the country, reports began to reach the New York Times of an unusually high num­ber of oil tankers massing offshore.

The implication, which came to be accepted by the press not only in New York but throughout the country as the truth, was that the tankers were waiting offshore for oil prices to rise before they unloaded their cargoes.

When the media questioned the oil companies on this, their spokesmen denied the rumors. There was nothing to be gained by such tactics, they said, because under American price control laws the shippers were limited to a sale price based on what they had paid for the oil. In other words, the US price of the oil was fixed at the moment the ship was loaded.

Not only that, but the cost of keeping a tanker at sea was far greater than any profit the oil companies might hope to make. Never­theless, the mythical tankers grew to be treat­ed as fact by the media, and several stories - all of them damaging to the reputation of the oil companies involved - appeared to perpetuate the rumor.

Herb Schmertz, at that time vice-president of public ­affairs at the Mobil Corporation—currently president of consulting firm—that bears his name, was of the PR men involved, and who failed to persuade the media, despite all the evidence, that the story they thought was so hot was, in fact, not only untrue but absurd.

"In recent years the press has grown increasingly adversarial towards the peo­ple or institutions it covers," says Schmertz. "Business has two choices: it can allow the press to do whatever it wants or it can confront the press when confrontation is necessary."

The majority of public relations profes­sionals (particularly in agencies) choose the former path. Indeed, many declined to be interviewed for this article and those who were talked more about conciliation and maintaining a good relationship with the media than about other options open to corporations. Even now, 16 years on, the Schmertz approach—which led to Mobil's PR department being named one of the worst in the country by journalists—is highly unpopular.

Nevertheless, confrontation was the route Schmertz and Mobil frequently fol­lowed, even taking on the might of The Wall Street Journal.

"The Journal opted for a style of jour­nalism whose main interest is to increase circulation," he said at the time. "In recent years the paper has shown itself to be more interested in the gossip of busi­ness than in the business of business."

He was most disturbed by the verdict of the Journal's editor after a senior Mobil executive won a libel case against the Washington Post. The editor described it as "a sad commentary on our times that a jury should find for an oil company against a newspaper."

"That statement reveals a shocking bias," Schmertz said in his book, Goodbye to the Low Profile. "He seemed to be say­ing that oil companies are so venal and so inherently evil that no matter what a newspaper says about them they should never prevail in a court of law."

Of course, most journalists do not deliberately set out to attack business and distort the facts. However, it is sufficiently widespread that a 1987 survey by Egon Zendher International revealed that 59% of senior executives agreed with the statement that: "If I talk to the press, I almost invariably get misquoted."

Almost 90% felt that "the general press does not understand business problems"; but at the same time, more than half admitted that business leaders themselves were not effective in dealing with the press; and 42% agreed that reporters had good reason to be wary of the information it got from business.

The survey reveals the three main rea­sons why errors occur in business report­ing, other than the simple possibility that the journalist made a mistake.

The first, and undoubtedly the most common, is that business leaders them­selves do not fully understand the requirements of the media. While most corporate leaders have extensive experi­ence of financial management and indus­trial relations, few are familiar with the behavior and techniques of the press. Faced wit h a tough line of questioning, therefore, they react by either shooting off at the mouth or refusing to comment. Neither reaction is likely to promote posi­tive media coverage.

The second is that journalism, whatev­er its practitioners may claim to the con­trary, is a business. Newspapers are reliant on high circulation. Thus reporting the news is not enough: it has to be sold. This means news has to be packaged in such a way that it sells, and that means it has to be provocative.

This situation is more true on television than elsewhere. Here the demand for drama mitigates against balance most of the time, while the fact that many of the best brains in television are thinking more about packaging and presentation - mak­ing the news more exciting - than they are about content compounds the problem.

Thus many journalists find themselves asking, albeit subconsciously: "Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?"

The third reason, compounding the first two, is that many business reporters are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the subjects on which they write. They are, after all, journalists rather than doc­tors, engineers or economists. They are therefore reliant upon experts for their background information.

Unfortunately, the media definition of an expert is often very different from the business definition. To the media an expert can be anyone who has spent time examining a situation. It matters little whether they have a bias of their own.

"The media is either conned or allows itself to be conned," says Carol Friend, former president of the British Institute of Public Relations. "An expert can be someone who happens to be a member of a community group, or a health organiza­tion, even a lay member. If they say sugar or salt or red meat is bad for you, it's a story. The fact that their allegations are unproven by the media is irrelevant."

A case in point, according to one of the PR agencies involved, was the reaction of 60 Minutes to the National Resources Defense Council story on alar in apples. Rather than let the facts, or any concept of balance, get in the way of the story, the show's producers told apple manufactur­ers that the show would be an attack on the Environmental Protection Agency for its poor methods, and that there was no need for them to provide a spokesperson for balance.

"When the show was broadcast it took us completely by surprise," says the woman involved. "I felt I was deliberately misled."

Nevertheless, this incident, like most, resulted in nothing more than an exchange between reporter and PR peo­ple. This is the first, and most common, step in a series of responses that go all the way from this kind of diplomatic exchange to something that resembles global thermonuclear war (fortunately, this happens rarely).

"The first thing we do is talk to the reporter involved," says Burson­-Marsteller's Trudi Schutz. "We try to find out what went wrong and get it corrected that way. We find that in general the media wants to be fair, and if a mistake has been made they will admit it. If that doesn't work we may talk to someone higher in the company, the editor for example, and finally we might write a let­ter to the editor."

The letter to the editor is the next step up, a diplomatic exchange. It happens all the time and stops short of confrontation. But if the letter doesn't work, there are other actions.

Breaking off diplomatic relations basi­cally means that the company involved no longer deals with the publication it believes to have wronged it. This happens more often to trade books than it does to major dailies, for obvious reasons. Many fashion houses, for example, refuse to deal with Women's Wear Daily despite its influence in the market, because they have not got the coverage they thought they deserved in the past.

The next step could be defined as eco­nomic sanctions. General Motors tried this (for a limited time) after Fortune ran an article by former GM partner Ross Perot attacking the company's manage­ment style. A GM spokesman at the time explained that the company did not feel that a publication which had run such a negative article was an "appropriate envi­ronment" for ads, suggesting that their effectiveness would be negated by such an article.

Finally, it's war: legal action. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Mobil went to war with the Wall Street Journal. Fiat went to war with The Financial Times of London over an article alleging political improprieties. British computer wiz Alan Sugar sued the BBC and won.
"It would be an absolute. last resort," says Trudi Schutz, who says she has never advised a client to sue. "Usually you can get satisfaction without confrontation."

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