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If You Won’t Share Your Story, The Media Can’t Tell It! (So Don’t Get Mad When They “Get it Wrong”!)

This morning I received a response from a media rep I was working with to connect with a source for a story that has the potential to reflect negatively on the organization–a rather large organization. After working with her for about a week, she sent an email that said: “We’re going to have to pass on commenting. Sorry.”

As someone who has also been in her shoes, on the other side of the great divide between organizations and the media, I’m sure that she is.

I’m sure she knows, just as well as I and other communication professionals do, the problem with refusing to provide any comment. But PR reps’ ability to share is often hampered by senior leaders and others (I hate to pick on attorneys because my son is one, but…) who simply don’t want to talk. I’ve always thought it is kind of an “odd” perspective. Somehow those that hide behind “no comment” feel that if they don’t say anything, nothing will be said. But something will be said and, without their input, it’s highly unlikely that they will be satisfied with the outcome.

I am fortunate that throughout my communication career, and today, I have a “foot in both camps.” As a business journalist for a number of years I’ve attempted to get information from sources and have been stymied by PR reps at times; as a PR rep for organizations and clients I’ve been on the other side of this equation. These experiences, I think, have helped me work to find a balance that will serve both sides and, most importantly, the needs of their audiences!

Trust me. When you’re placed in a situation like this you really need to say something–it’s in your own best interests.

How can your side of the story possibly be adequately conveyed if you won’t share your side of the story? It’s a puzzling Catch-22 from my point of view. While I can certainly understand the hesitancy and I’ve definitely been involved in plenty of situations where I would have preferred the issue would just go away, I know that it won’t. I know that my (or my client’s) refusal to enter the conversation will not stop the conversation. What it will do, in virtually all cases, is generate potentially inaccurate or incomplete information. That’s not what you want.

When a situation occurs, you need to respond, regardless of how big, ugly and scary it seems. It is far, far, far better to say something than to say nothing, for several reasons:

  • You look bad when you say nothing. “Company XYZ was unavailable for comment.,” or “Company XYZ would not comment” are statements that only convey to the audience that you are trying to hide something or that you are afraid to talk. Both of those things may be true, but they’re not the impression you should leave with your audience.
  • Someone else will always fill in the blanks. The media are not just going to “give up” if they can’t get comments from you. They will simply get comments from other people. And that is all they will have to go on when they tell the story. It’s not that they are intentionally conveying inaccurate information – you did not provide them with any information so they cannot possibly be expected to convey “your side of the story.” In this case I suspect that the organization may have some very good reasons for what they’re doing–but I don’t know, because they won’t tell me!
  • You may potentially “prolong the pain.” Depending on the story and the interest it generates, you may decide at some future point in time that you “really should comment.” That just keeps the story out there. Had you commented at the
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    outset you would have had a far better chance of watching it die a natural death which all stories, regardless of how sensational, eventually do.

Importantly, don’t wait until a situation occurs to determine your strategy. In today’s lightning-fast social media environment you literally don’t have time to devise a strategy once something has already “hit the fan” as they say. Take time now to think about the issues that might impact you, to develop policies and responsibilities for responding if something does, to establish relationships with outside resources if necessary and to prepare your potential spokespeople to do a good job of representing your organization even in big, bad and ugly situations.

The upside of all of this is that exposure through the media — whether traditional or social — can have a very positive impact on your organization and its image. And, while it may be hard to believe, if you “do it right,” this can be true even in those situations where you’d prefer to say “no comment.”

 

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