Who Says You Can’t Talk Back to the Media?

A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter called me. He was looking at OSHA ratings for the aviation and automotive industries when he stumbled upon the statistics related to the nursing home industry. He said he was “utterly shocked” to learn about these statistics and he could not understand why the numbers were so high.

He paused.

After a bit of an uncomfortable silence he asked me a few pointed questions that largely revolved around how we safely move our non-ambulatory or other disabled patients from the bed to the shower, to their wheelchair, or off the floor if they had fallen, etc. He pointed to various claims and statistics across the industry. After I provided an explanation about how we use appropriate equipment, conduct training, provide rehabilitation to anyone injured on the job, and the rigorous regulatory guidelines that we adhere to, he pressed me as to why clinical staff get injured on the job.

I paused.

And then this is what I told him: “Because as careful and well-trained as the staff may be at transporting medically complex patients, in this industry we deal with people. It is a person to person business. People caring for other people in a 24/7 critical care environment. And patients who can walk, are encouraged to do so. We aren’t working with airplane parts or tires. But let me ask you something – would you like us to leave your wife or mother on the floor or in the bed for fear that our clinicians might get hurt if we moved her?”

He paused and thoughtfully said, “No.”

And then I stated what should have been obvious: “We do not leave people on the floor.” He finished our conversation with a kinder response, “That is probably the best approach.”

And that was the end of it. No story ran on OSHA ratings in the nursing home industry – at least on that day – in the Wall Street Journal.

The reason I tell you this story is because I call total BS on the culture of companies or communicators who allow themselves to be held hostage by the media.

More and more, I see far too many people acting like they have no control over the conversations they have with the media. Reporters have a job to do. But so do we.

Members of the media do not always intend to push all of your buttons and some certainly get it wrong or move too fast and get sloppy. But as professional communicators, it is our right and responsibility to call out the media on sloppy reporting, seek opportunities to comment when the focus of the reporting is our client, and ask for corrections when incorrect or false information is published.

Here are some fast things to consider when developing a protective communications program:

  • Being protective of your brand or client isn’t defensive, too aggressive or anything else. Stop worrying about whether or not people will like you if you push back. Get rid of that stigma in your head. Being protective is about following through on a commitment to hold your own and presenting your side of the story.
  • If the press run a story without giving you a chance to provide a statement – call them… Immediately. The phone works both ways. And if a reporter doesn’t call you back or take your call – take your concerns to their editor.
  • Don’t back down when you are in unfamiliar territory or caught off guard. Even if you hold the title of “PR Director” or “Chief Communications Officer,” you have the same rights as anyone else in an interview. The media will respect your desire to get them the facts. Ask for more time, if given an unfair deadline.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say – be confident and kind in your response.
  • Know the facts (the good, the bad and certainly the ugly). The more information you are armed with the better equipped you will be to address the media.
  • Clients – please be responsive with your communicators. A good communicator knows you are busy with operations, finances, or other day-to-day business items. But when she calls, establish a rapport that you will pick up the phone or call back in a timely manner. Cultivate mutual respect to support one of your first-line of defense team members.
  • Work across departments. Sometime you’ll need access to legal, finance, or operations data to pull together the facts. It may not go into the media statement – but it may help you craft a truthful and protective statement or talking points.

The formula of being protective continues to work for our clients at Trifecta. Just this week I had a reporter immediately remedy and apologize for not contacting me for a comment. I kindly reminded him that he has previously quoted me and we have worked to keep the lines of communication open. He updated his article with our client’s statement because I took the simple step of emailing him. 

Tell your side of the story. Don’t sit on the sidelines and let the court of public opinion tell your story for you.

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