Why Reporters Like 'Bad' News
There is Risk as Well as Reward to Every News Story
Whenever you deal with the news media, there is a primary rule that you must keep in mind at all times.
Call it Cawley's Theorem of Media Relations:
1. All journalists secretly believe they will someday win the Pulitzer Prize.
2. No journalist ever won the Pulitzer by writing nice things about American business.
Therefore: If a journalist finds out something negative about your company, expect to see it in the news.
So what's the point of this theorem?
Anytime you deal with a journalist (whether in person, online, by phone, by letter, in a media kit, whatever) realize you are dealing with a tiger.
The tiger may purr. The tiger may preen. The tiger may even run and jump and play. But if the tiger smells fresh meat, the tiger will feed.
No matter how friendly you become with a journalist, no matter how well an interview goes, no matter how warm and fuzzy you feel as you wait for a story to appear: Expect negatives.
The journalist's job is not to make your company look good. The journalist's job is to report an intriguing story that an editor will approve, an audience will read and (if possible) a prize committee will recognize with praise and trophies.
And nothing makes a story more intriguing than a big, fat, hairy, embarrassing negative.
Let's put it this way: The Washington Post's Bob Woodward didn't become Bob Woodward by writing nice stories. He spent the early part of his career digging up as many embarrassing stories about government agencies and private companies as he could. He cut his teeth by revealing corporate greed and government waste.
Then came Watergate, which gave Woodward the opportunity to apply all his well-honed, field-tested skills to dismantling the Nixon administration.
This is how a suburban beat reporter becomes Bob Woodward.
- If a reporter tours your job site before a groundbreaking ceremony, and sees a laundry list of OSHA violations, expect the violations to appear in the story.
- If a reporter visits your headquarters to profile your CEO, and happens to view a layoff order on an assistant's desk, expect to see the layoff reported in the news media.
- If a reporter attends a preview of your newest product, and comes across a consumer advocate who believes your product is a threat to public health, expect to see the advocate's comments prominently played in the article.
The point of Cawley's Theorem is not to make you fearful of the news media. The point is to make you keenly aware that there is risk as well as reward in dealing with reporters.
You cannot control what the reporter reports. You must deal with this basic truth. Your CEO must deal with it. Your entire company culture must deal with it.
Like the rest of us, journalists are looking to advance in their careers. There's no faster way to advance in journalism than by winning the Pulitzer.
And you win the Pulitzer with brass-knuckle reporting.
The PR Rainmaker always keeps in mind: The reporter is never your friend and is never looking out for your best interests.
Copyright 2003 by W.O. Cawley Jr.
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