If you’re blaming the press, you’ve probably already lost the PR battle

Bashing a reporter or media outlet that covered you unfavorably is certainly not a new thing. In fact, it’s a time-honored tradition to complain about negative coverage — at your office, at home or, most appropriately, at the bar at the end of the day.

When you move from whining with colleagues at Happy Hour to publicly bashing the reporters and media outlets that cover you, the reality is that you’ve lost the Public Relations Battle. You’ll maybe win a few cheap points with a few folks who have become trained to blame the press for everything. But reasonable people will roll their eyes when you bash truthful coverage. It hurts your credibility and damages your relationships with reporters — if you ever wanted a positive story, complaining unnecessarily isn’t the best way to start.

No one bashes reporters into writing PR-perfect stories about them. It’s usually the opposite, honestly. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite Greener’s Law about not quarreling with someone who buys ink by the barrel, which is still true, despite ink being less of a factor these days.)

I’m not referring to coverage that is obviously untrue, poorly researched or blatantly biased. If a reporter or outlet publishes something that is just plain WRONG or UNTRUE, you should reach out to the reporter (or his or her editor) to correct the record and discuss how to make sure you’re represented fairly in the future. Sticking up for yourself in a professional manner is not just okay, it’s your job.

I’m talking about press coverage that you just don’t LIKE. Stories that present an opinion that is contrary to yours. Coverage that doesn’t match every bit of your messaging. A piece that points out flaws in something you’ve done.

Guess what? Calling something that you simply disagree with or don’t like “Fake News” doesn’t make it so. Neither does calling a reporter biased.

I was a Press Secretary for some fairly controversial programs for quite some time. I have felt my face flush with anger about coverage that didn’t present one of my programs in a good light. I’ve thrown my Blackberry over a bad editorial. I’ve had countless Outside Voice conversations about coverage in the parking lots of some great restaurants in New Orleans and seedy bars in Baton Rouge. (Side note: if you’re friends with a Press Secretary, you know this drill well.)

I understand how frustrating it is when you and the folks you work with are trying so hard to do great things to help people while at every turn, a negative story or angry letter to the editor awaits. I’ve wanted to scream and lecture about how people just don’t understand the process or just don’t get the big picture or should just give us a little more time to make progress.

But even I know that when the coverage is true or reasonable, you can’t blame the reporter. Sometimes you might try to (it happens to the best of us), but most of the time, negative coverage can be attributed to one of two things — an operational problem, where what your organization or program is doing just isn’t working well or isn’t popular, or a communications problem, where you’re not getting your message out or your message isn’t the right one.

Spokespeople cannot fix operational problems. As I’ve said many times when speaking on crisis communication, no amount of good public relations is going to unsink the Titanic. You can make some suggestions and point out potential icebergs, but someone else has to navigate.

I had to learn as a Press Secretary that all negative coverage wasn’t my fault. (It was freeing to admit this.) But it wasn’t the media’s fault either. I couldn’t just blame a bad story on reporters. If we didn’t get the right message out to the right people, that was on me. But if something or someone simply didn’t perform as expected, there was probably nothing I could do but mitigate the negativity with information, explanations and a reaction. Some days you win, some days you shove your Blackberry into the dark recesses of your purse and drink wine.

As you navigate the waters of media relations, you learn to work with people who might not always present you in the most favorable light. Not doing so is detrimental to your reputation and your employer. As you build media relationships, you can work with reporters to make sure your voice is prevalent in coverage. But you lose the chance to really affect stories if each time you open your mouth you’re complaining about how unfair the press is.

Take each negative story as a chance to improve your process and hone your message. Look for new storylines, adjust your speaking points, offer better training to your spokespeople or find better avenues to share your perspective directly with stakeholders and the public. All of these things are better options than complaining about reporters. And, they might even earn you better coverage in the long run.