Exposé, Exposure and Transparency

By Matter

I recently spoke with a friend who used to be a client.  Neither of us is tied to the company through which we met, but we stay in touch.  That company (I’ll call it ThatCo to protect the innocent) was recently included in an exposé of its industry at the hands of the Wall Street Journal. It’s the kind of story CEOs dread.  The week-long series shed a light on the industry’s accepted, self-policed business practices, and painted those practices as something the world should be concerned about, complete with paranoia-inducing headlines.  The story has since been echoed on NPR and in other outlets.

I’m not writing to condemn the industry’s practices, nor to call the Wall Street Journal irresponsible.  The industry is not out to do anyone harm, and I imagine it’s hard to draw eyeballs to the Wall Street Journal in August.  The story is engaging, and it is better that the general public be aware of these issues.

Not only does the story make sense, but we knew it was coming.  About two years ago the PR team conducted a media training session with ThatCo and we set aside a significant amount of time to cover this issue.  They had the messages – fact-based, reasonable, clear and easy to deliver.  I can say them to myself now.  We also covered when to use them.  This is apparently where the breakdown occurred.

ThatCo’s executive provided the “golden quote” – the one that instantly put miles of distance between a cool, collected executive and an enraged public.  The former client’s words were the first quote in the first story of the series.  Even the industry blogs that have since come out in defense of the client have repeated this quote.  I believe I’ve heard these words come from this client before, verbatim.  I don’t doubt for a second he said them. It’s the context, however, that makes me imagine a giddy reporter (and a reporter not prone to giddiness) stifling a squeal to avoid tipping off the unaware interview subject.

Someone missed a sign.  They followed a path that seemingly led to a glowing review of their mastery in creating value for customers, and forgot to deliver the messages that connect that value to responsible use of their powerful product.

I understand I risk sounding like a spurned partner in saying that if the company still had a PR firm, the spokesperson may have had a briefing sheet in hand that told him this reporter had previously won a Pulitzer for exposing corporate misdeeds.  He might have read the recent article in which that reporter covered a company that knowingly withheld information from customers.  He might have had someone on the line that cued him to step back and provide appropriate context for the reporter’s audience.

That’s water under the bridge, and it doesn’t help the ThatCo now.  But there is a learning opportunity to be had from this experience.  Below are 10 steps companies can take to help them avoid being ThatCo. The one that industry colleagues now look at with equal measures of shame, pity and accusation.  The one that has to explain to family and friends how he isn’t in an evil line of work.  The one that might get the cold shoulder from partners and clients “until this whole thing cools off.”

Before the interview:

1)      Know who you’re talking to. Look up their previous stories. Read their bio. At the very least, if the reporter tells you he or she need to conduct the interview in the next five minutes or the world will end, Google him or her while you’re talking.

2)      Get the context.  If you are discussing something controversial or easily misunderstood, ask the reporter what section the story will run in and who the audience is.  If they say they don’t know, assume it will be the audience least likely to understand.

During the interview:

3)      Hear yourself talk.  Understand how each soundbyte will sound in public.

4)      Ask questions.  Who else is the reporter talking to?  What do they think of the industry? What else are they covering?  Two minutes of seemingly idle chit chat can provide a world of information.

Before the story runs:

5)      Don’t be afraid to follow up.  If you feel you missed the opportunity to strike the right balance, send a note with more information.

After the story runs:

6)      Know how this affects your business.  Do the people who pay your bills already understand this issue?  Are they exposed along with you?  Do you need to defend yourself or take the fall in order to keep business running smoothly?

7)      Deliver the untold story in public.  ThatCo has responded in a blog, but missed the source of the real concern, and further, has yet to deliver the messages that connect value to customers with responsible use of the product.  To its credit, it stepped in the line of fire and offered to respond to any concerned parties.  It would have been better if that response was also public.

8)      Tell the truth, quickly.  This axiom of crisis communications applies to PR crises as well.  Don’t play the victim or pull back from the media or the false perception will sink in further. Use your newfound (if unwelcome) attention to fill the information gap.

9)      Understand this is now public record.  Expect the questions to come up again.  Have your answers on hand.

10)   Sympathize with the outrage. In this case, the company already had ways to accommodate anyone who didn’t approve of the standard industry practices.  They made these accommodations widely available, but until the series ran, most people didn’t take advantage of them.  If your company is not as prepared to respond to an angry audience, open your communications channels.  The only way to battle distrust is with honesty.

My friend, the ex-client, said grimly, ThatCo “finally got its Wall Street Journal story.” It turns out ThatCo got half of its story in the Wall Street Journal.  By demanding — and providing — transparency, it might not happen to you.