By Corey Preston
My career as a business attorney and counselor is still relatively young, but in working with clients who are conscious not just of potential legal issues, but also of building and maintaining their business reputation in the community, I find myself reflecting on a period, before law school, when I was a reporter for a small town newspaper.? In particular, I recently recalled a time when our news desk was particularly hot with tips from community members who were contacting the paper to report complaints, issues and concerns, some potentially alarming, against a regional business with an office in town.? Initially, I was dubious that there was anything ?newsworthy? to these grievances, until, that is, the company?clearly not accustomed to getting press inquiries?made all the wrong moves.
My initial contact began with simple confusion?I was passed from a receptionist, to a VP, to another VP, back to the receptionist?until ultimately the buck was passed to the absolute worst company spokesman, the manager at the local office where the complaints originated.? He started off by insulting me, my paper, and ?the media? at large (I later learned the local television news was also poking around), then moved on to making wild, unhinged personal allegations against the folks who had called with the complaints.? Even at that point, I was inclined to think there wasn?t any ?there? there, until the manager shouted at me, repeatedly, ?even if what they?re saying is true, so what??
At that point, with what sounded an awful lot like an admission that the worst of the complaints against the business were true, I had everything I needed to publish a story, one that would have reflected very badly on the company.? Luckily for them, I was inclined to do a bit more due diligence before going to press.? After I reached out to corporate headquarters again, and described the local manager?s comments, I promptly received a frantic call from the CEO, who attempted to offer a far more composed explanation, and ultimately helped to defuse the story.
As a counselor at law, who understands and values the role of the press, not just historically but also in the present, I offer that the ?media? ?television stations, online news organizations and blogs, and even the occasional newspaper?still have considerable power to impact your business?s reputation, for good or for bad.? If your business carries any sort of public profile, here are five quick tips for developing a media strategy that preserves your company?s good name:
(1)? Appoint a point person to handle all inquiries: Let your employees know that any inquiries from the press, no matter what the topic, should be funneled to one specific person.? That person can delegate all he or she likes, but you want to avoid a situation where the buck gets passed all the way to the one voice you don?t want to be speaking for your company.
(2)? Be proactive when your business may become a peripheral part of the story: Stories like the one described above?investigating consumer complaints?were relatively rare for me, although certain local news outlets specialize in that type of consumer protection investigation.? Far more common is a scenario where some high profile local or national story is ongoing, and a news outlet turns to a local business for context or color.? For instance, a story breaks nationally about defective car parts, and you happen to own one of the area?s largest dealerships.? If your business is caught off guard, you may well wind up being framed as part of the problem.? But if you anticipate the potential for media contact, you can better control your company?s image, and even proactively reach out to the media to get out ahead of any national public blowback.
(3)? Prepare for bad news: The saving grace for the company described above was that the CEO called with not just a more measured response, but with specific details regarding the customer complaints that ultimately satisfied me and my editors that the most serious allegations were primarily prompted by an ugly personal dispute.? If allegations are raised against your business, it?s always best to first consult an attorney, but when it comes time to speak with the press, make sure you have a comprehensive grasp of the details of the situation?it may well be possible to defuse the story ahead of time.
(4)? Keep an eye open for good news😕 Turn on your local television news some Saturday evening, and you?ll see a funhouse of feel-good stories mixed in with the standard fare.? Editors and producers love those type of stories because they are simple, quick-hit filler?if your company is involved in some sort of fundraising or charitable work, if an employee has done something notable, actively reaching out to media outlets can lead to positive, free advertising for your business.
(5)? If you?re going to give a ?no comment,? be polite: One of the great dilemmas in the news business is the placement of a ?no comment.?? Stick it at the end of a piece, as a casual aside, and it will usually go overlooked.? Place it right at the center of the drama??when asked how he felt about sick puppies, he offered no comment??and the implications can be deeply negative.? A willingness to engage with media outlets, even if you ultimately prefer not to offer any public comment, will go a long way in avoiding the latter.
Now an attorney, many years removed from my days as a reporter, I would offer that seeking quality legal advice should always be the first step if there is any possibility that a media inquiry might expose you to legal liability.? But that is all the more reason to have a strategy in place, in the event that a media organization does contact your business, for determining any possible liability, and preparing a swift and proactive response that will ensure that your business is cast in the best possible light.