To Avoid Media Mishaps, Think Like A Bank Robber.

Posted on June 12, 2014. Filed under: Media Commentary, Public Relations, Public Relations Commentary, Public Relations Pointers, Public relations practices | Tags: , , , , , , |

[Blogger’s Note: I take a semi-facetious tone in the article, but it’s a dead serious topic for businesses too. You always want to have a strategy in mind when talking with the news media. If you don’t know what you want to say to the media, don’t say anything.]

We’ve all seen it happen. Someone in a position of authority, such as a client, gets to chatting with a member of the media. The reporter is knowledgeable about the client’s industry; they know some of the same people; they start trading names and opinions, etc. Just shop talk, right?

Before you know it, the client lets his/her guard down — and starts injecting confidential information into the conversation.

What’s the harm? It’s just shop talk, right?

But the reporter’s on the clock.

Tripped Up While Tripping The Light Fantastic.

There’s a good way to think about watching what you say around reporters, especially the ones who cover your industry, company, etc.

Crime fiction offers a lesson in knowing when to hold your tongue. The bad guys know that every time they talk to a cop — even if it’s midnight in some honky-tonk bar somewhere and the cop seems to be enjoying the nightlife as much as they are — they are at risk of inadvertently incriminating themselves.

Sorry, Officer. We Can Let That One Go, Hey?

With one slip of the tongue, they might say something like, “Naw, we didn’t use that dim-wit Freddie on the bank job. Whadd’ya think, we’re crazy?” Oops. Cat’s out of the bag now, and can’t be coaxed back into it either. The cop’s probably not going to say something like, “Well, somebody was thinking straight there, keeping Freddie off that job.”

Nope, the cop’s now got knowledge that the bad guy was in on the heist. Just because the admission was made during a seemingly friendly, off-the-record conversation doesn’t mean squat. No rules were set, just two guys talking. Our guy reveals he was involved in a major crime. What’s the cop going to do? Tell him not to worry, since he’s off-duty and everything said to an off-duty cop is off-the-record?

Probably not. What’s probably going to happen is that the cop will either arrest him on the spot, call it in, or report it to whoever’s in charge of the bank job investigation. And our man, Mr. Bad Guy, gets yanked off to jail, protesting all the while that he didn’t know that what he said was on the record.

Better That The Cat Has Your Tongue Than It Crawls Out Of The Bag.

Same idea applies when talking to the media. They’re not bad people. They’re good people, most of them, but if they get a hold of a piece of information that can lead to a big story, they’re going to run with it. Odds are the client/confidential information leaker is not going to be able to talk the reporter — or the reporter’s editor — out of doing the story just because the information was shared in an informal manner.

These kind of situations do happen. People get careless, let slip something they shouldn’t, then realize they can’t take their words back. A good PR person might be able to mitigate the damage, but it is really hard to get that darned cat back in the bag again. Best not to let it out in the first place.

Oh, The Outrage! The Betrayal! Say It Ain’t So!

Tragically, some people, also known as clients, let such avoidable situations sour them on the whole idea of media relations in general. Or they get down on the particular reporter for “burning” them. “Never again will we deal with either that reporter or the rag he/she works for!” the client may bluster. “They can forget about any advertising from us, too!”

It happens, probably more often that you think. It’s very unfortunate when it does happen. All kinds of bad things can happen, once the beans are  spilled.

So take a page from our friendly if misguided bank robber. Never mistake a reporter, especially one that you don’t know well, for a confidant. If you want to go off the record with a reporter, negotiate that up front — and keep in mind that you’re playing a high stakes game. Even off the record stuff often shows up in print or on TMZ.

Maybe the best approach is that suggested by the criminal mind after all. The savvy bank robber, assuming he wants to retain his freedom and enjoy spending his ill-gotten gains, knows the risks of implicating himself, even off-handedly, in the caper. He knows that once he talks — even to his drinking buddy cop friend — he can’t take it back. His words will show up in a police report, which will be very unpleasant for him.

Just Don’t Do It!

There’s the best advice to keep in mind when talking with a reporter, formally or informally. Think before you speak. Think, “how will this look in print” (or on TMZ, assuming you have celeb cred)? It can save you endless hours of gnashing your teeth and scrambling (most likely in vain) to put out a fire that you yourself started.

But if you do say more than you should, best advice is to not try to put out the fire by yourself. Avail yourself of professional PR resources, the best you can get, to at least mount a credible job of damage control.


Doug Hovelson, author of this blog post, is an experienced media relations and public relations professional working out of Minneapolis. He’s helped dozens of companies – from Fortune 500 size to start-ups — grow their businesses with effective media relations programs. (He’s never robbed a bank, however.) He’s always delighted to talk media relations strategies with people who want to see if they can do more with their media relations efforts. He can be reached at 612-722-5501 or at doughovelson AT MSN Dot COM.

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