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There's No Replacement for Honesty in Media Relations

It was the kind of conversation that never should have happened. My employer at the time was working to avoid any hint of a potential misunderstanding, and she was a reporter trying to uncover “the truth.” But we saw one another socially at a party, and during a lull in the festivities, the journalist cornered me.
“I know you guys are lying about this,” she said. “I know you’re hiding something!”
I quickly pointed out that I had never lied to her, and that no one in my office would lie to or otherwise intentionally mislead a member of the media. But by this time, she was just getting started.
Against my better judgment,I began to tick off my points, one by one, where she was in error. I’d have never done it otherwise, but cornering me in a social situation was a little rude, I thought. Plus, as a former reporter and editor, I felt I could show her some ways in which she could improve her coverage of our institution.
(If you’re wondering, that’s a horrible decision for a PR pro to make. I know it can be incredibly tempting to tell off a reporter, especially one who has repeatedly gotten a story wrong or whose editorializing may have mischaracterized a situation. But please, learn from my mistakes, and DO NOT go and do likewise.)
I don’t remember everything I said, but I ended by again telling her that our office would not lie. That’s just not how we did business. Because I’ve worked both sides of the fence, I can say this: Many reporters think of PR people as basically dishonest. And because so many of us PR practitioners are former journalists, we find that characterization offensive at best.
One of the reasons we don’t lie to media—other than just the ethics of the profession—is that a lie to a reporter hurts your client worse, once the lie is uncovered. Better to say “I can’t answer that right now,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll find someone who can hopefully better address your question.”
Sure, PR pros are working an angle. That doesn’t make us dishonest. Because I learned the ropes of this work from three incredibly sharp and honest people, that honesty has (I hope) rubbed off on me. If there’s a question I can’t answer, whether it’s because I don’t know or because I’ve been told not to answer, I try to either say “no comment” or refer the inquiry to someone who can answer.
There was one time I broke that honesty rule, and I can remember how disappointed my boss at the time was.
Here’s the situation:
I’d written a feature story on a student, and she was having photos re-taken. (She wasn’t pleased with the way she looked in the photos, and our office tried to be more than accommodating to reshoot requests.) The reshoot went well until we saw the pictures at full size. The young woman—who was very modest in her day-to-day life—was a little more revealing in the photos than anyone wanted her to be.
I wasn’t sure what to do. We’d shot two sets of photos and a deadline was looming. We needed to re-reshoot, though. To save the young woman some embarrassment, I told her the memory card on the camera was corrupted, and her pictures didn’t turn out.
It seemed the easiest thing to say at the time, but I remember my boss—a man who had taught me the basics of doing PR at a major university—staring at me with an incredible look of disappointment on his face. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew I’d fallen short of my own standards, to say nothing of his.
I’d handle the situation differently now, of course. Working with people, helping them through their tough times, and speaking hard truths to them in a gentle and helpful way, is a huge part of helping a client with their public relations messaging. And thanks to some great teachers, I know how to handle it in the correct way.