Holmes Report 07 Oct 2014 // 7:30PM GMT
By Jason Morris “I am going to have to beat you up today, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to provide some background, even if not for attribution.” [caption id="attachment_3059" align="alignright" width="150"] Jason Morris[/caption] The above was an exact quote from a beat reporter assigned to cover a large energy company I worked with (the customer of a client) several years back. I thought it an interesting and transparent example of a journalist was giving a company the opportunity to provide some background on a story he had to cover. There was probably no rescuing what was going to be a negative story—the news was pretty bad—but there was still a “win” to be had in the background and accommodation the company could provide a reporter who had to cover it regardless. This is how the relationship between a large company PR rep and a beat reporter should work. With human understanding and pragmatism that each has a job to do and that reporting good news or bad news is not personal. However, with many large companies the natural reaction to beat writers—even in the absence of bad news—is much different. Even the most run-rate of requests can be met with hand wringing and paranoia, and proactive opportunities are many times viewed as risks versus opportunity. This is a shame because we live in an era where large companies are embracing innovation and disruption like never before. Google, Intel, Cisco, IBM, Samsung, Apple, Amazon, Salesforce and a number of others aren’t resting on the laurels of their legacy businesses, but instead are driving innovation in new segments and investing in startups where their technical expertise, vast resources and influence can provide a shortcut to disruption. But this wholesale embracing of innovation has fallen short of its mark, because the marketing and PR teams of these companies are still hindered by the legacy thinking and paranoia that has become associated with being a market leader dealing with the media. It’s not unlike what happens in life. You spend your youth ignoring consequences and exploring the boundaries of your mortality, only to grow older and weigh each option based on risks and rewards. In some people, this trend toward risk aversion can become downright paralyzing. The same thing happens at companies in relation to external communications. Startups spend tons of money, time and intellectual capital trying to get the media to pay attention to them. PR agencies and in-house marketing folks spend days and nights trying to come up with new angles and storylines to make a small company relevant. They desperately want to give nothing but access to journalists who love that level of insight into new innovations, inventors and corporate cultures. But once a company becomes a market leader, all of a sudden an interview becomes a reason for stress and paranoia. “I know they want our thoughts on xyz trend, but what if they ask about ‘insert undesired topic here’? This reporter clearly has it in for us.” There will be times when the legal, financial or PR risks are too high to comment or provide context on negative news. But there is a huge difference between taking unnecessary risks and bringing your corporate communications program to a standstill. The media loves untold stories. It’s like when you or I discover a new book by our favorite author—there is a thirst for something new or creative. As a longtime PR professional in the tech industry, I know that large companies have their untold stories. Stories that are buried but could excite employees, potential hires, customers, partners and investors. Stories that never get told or are significantly delayed as companies overanalyze how a reporter might try and torch them in the resulting article. It’s time large companies recapture the youthful exuberance of their start-up days and embrace living life as a company the media cares about. The first step is to accept your beat reporters for the job they’re assigned to do and engage with them in a meaningful way. Jason Morris is GM and EVP in the San Francisco office of InkHouse.