Candour gaining currency among execs

It was a classic media relations debacle....

It was a classic media relations debacle.

In 1994, when media reports revealed that Intel Corp.’s just-shipped Pentium chips were flawed, the company’s public manner was nothing short of arrogant. Andy Grove, the chair and CEO at the time, told the press that, despite public outcry, the company would only replace the chips for a select few customers. Eventually, the company reversed that position. But Intel jokes abounded for months afterwards.

Today, Grove – who is also co-founder of Intel – openly admits that this was the biggest mistake of his career. And the company’s approach to media relations has shifted dramatically. Sure, Intel has had other chip problems. What’s different is that the company has been a lot more forthcoming and a lot less high-handed when presenting its story to the press.

What this illustrates, with particular clarity, is the degree to which senior executives in the corporate world are changing their tune when it comes to media relations. At one time, most viewed the process as a necessary evil, at best. But today, PR practitioners say, there’s a recognition that it can be essential to building and maintaining corporate or brand reputation.

‘Today’s CEOs are more aware of the role and the impact the media have on their business than they were 10 years ago,’ says David Gordon, vice-president of Toronto-based Cohn & Wolfe.

It used to be relatively common for clients to treat media relations dismissively, he says. Senior execs would blow off interview requests, leaving the PR agency to handle them. And when they did come to the microphone – usually in crisis situations – their unfamiliarity with the process made it all too easy for them to come across as arrogant or shifty. (Think old 60 Minutes clips.)

In recent years, however, marketing executives and other senior corporate personnel have come to appreciate the value of greater openness with the media. Alison King, vice-president and partner with Toronto-based Media Profile, says her clients now tend to regard media relations as a means of building on the impact of their other marketing efforts, such as advertising, promotions and sponsorship.

‘All of our clients are very conscious of what’s being written about them and their products, and how it impacts them and their audiences,’ she says.

That’s reflected, in part, in the growing client demand for media training. King says clients today are much more concerned about presenting themselves well on camera than they were a decade ago. They want to be fully prepared for their 15 minutes of fame, knowing that it may well be cut down to a 15-second sound bite.

PR practitioners have been quick to answer the demand. All of the public relations agencies interviewed for this article offer some form of media training or coaching. And there are some specialized firms out there that do nothing but.

Ottawa-based Barry McLoughlin Associates, for example, offers seminars, books and software designed to help professionals become more comfortable communicating with the media. Clients weren’t exactly beating down the doors when the company started up in 1984, says vice-president Laura Peck. Today, however, McLoughlin runs training sessions 250 business days a year.

Before one of the firm’s full-day seminars, clients are asked to fill out a questionnaire, outlining some of the tough questions they may face from the press, and describing their past experiences with the media. In the training sessions, clients receive coaching in specific techniques for handling the media, and go through simulated interviews. The latter are videotaped, so that people can see and hear how they come across.

Clients aren’t supplied with stock answers to use when dealing with the press, Peck says. But they are given tools and techniques they can draw upon. ‘We give them a track to run on,’ she says.

Janice Murray, president of Toronto-based Fishbowl Communications in Toronto, suggests that media relations ought to be covered in university commerce courses and MBA programs, so that new corporate recruits start out with a clear understanding of the importance of the discipline.

‘They have to realize that media relations is part of the business mix,’ says Murray, whose agency works mainly with technology firms. ‘We find that companies that are willing to talk to journalists get their message out better.’

Cultivating that willingness, however, can be a challenge. Many executives, Murray says, can be downright phobic about dealing with the media.

‘People can have a fear of talking to a journalist. So we try to dispel that fear.’ Simply learning how the media work, she says, can go a long way toward reversing the effects of having seen All the President’s Men one too many times.

Arrogance is another factor that can hinder clients in their dealings with the media, Murray says. Many companies – high-tech startups, especially – have an almost evangelical belief in the superiority of their own products and services. Unfortunately, that’s an attitude that doesn’t play well with the always-skeptical members of the fourth estate. ‘When you’re talking to the media, check your ego at the door,’ she says.

Agota Gabor, president and founder of The Gabor Group in Toronto, says some execs simply don’t understand how media outlets work. They may be surprised, for example, to discover that the journalists covering the company aren’t all experts in its particular area of business, and may become impatient – even insulting – with those who are less well-versed.

Obviously, that’s not an advisable approach. Instead, Gabor suggests that clients endeavour to be helpful by providing reporters with more of the knowledge that they need to understand the story.

The Gabor Group, for its part, tries to help clients with this by positioning itself as a source for journalists, supplying pre-packaged elements such as video clips and testimonials that can make it easier for them to stitch together a story. The agency has created this sort of package on behalf of several pharmaceutical industry clients – and Gabor expects an expansion of this activity as media outlets look for ways to do more with fewer resources.

The trick, she says, is coming up with a package that reporters actually consider useful story material, rather than just corporate propaganda. ‘If you’re not doing it well, the media will throw it away.’

Media relations can be a particularly delicate job in smaller markets where the journalistic communities tend to be close-knit, says Kim West, vice-president of public affairs with Halifax-based advertising and PR agency McArthur Thomspon & Law.

‘You can burn bridges very easily here.’ For this reason, she says, it’s especially critical for clients to be well prepared when meeting the press, and to understand the true news value of the story they’re promoting.

When it comes to general media relations techniques, West says she counsels clients first and foremost to think before opening their mouths, rather than just saying whatever pops into their heads. ‘We should all take time to collect and process our thoughts.’

At the same time, it’s advisable to avoid pat answers. Journalists, she says, are increasingly aware of the media techniques taught to clients, and will simply roll their eyes at textbook responses.

Peck, for her part, says sincerity is an essential commodity in this field. The corporate execs best equipped for the media relations role, she argues, are the ones who are genuinely passionate about their businesses. Posers need not apply.

‘If you woke up Bill Gates at two o’clock in the morning, he’d talk to you about his company,’ she says. ‘It’s so much easier when it comes from the heart, and from a point of genuineness.’

Also in this report:

- Media convergence good for PR: Fewer gatekeepers, more open gates p.25

- Ongoing PR can be crucial to success of corporate ethics programs p.26

- Targeted PR builds partnerships: Can play key role for IT companies seeking alliances p.32