Media Relations 101: Why Transparency Always Triumphs

Being transparent builds public trust and safeguards the brand image…

If you’re a veteran communicator like me, you already know that mastering media relations is akin to a circus trapeze performer swinging hundreds of feet above ground without a net.

On one hand, you’re being pulled by your company’s executive leaders who want to micromanage the message by endless and unmitigated nitpicking. On the other hand, you’re being pulled by the news media to release requested information ASAP — regardless of what internal hoops you must jump through to get it.

But one factor to always keep in mind is that being transparent is tantamount to successful media relations. Here’s why:

Fostering transparency involves being honest, open and forthcoming with the media. This builds respect and goodwill in the short term, as well as a strong bond of trust over the long run.

Don’t forget that withholding key information from the media, or letting it out piecemeal, is never a good idea and only gives legs to a damaging story.

The result of trying to trample transparency is being compelled to respond to the drip-drip-drip debacle of multi-day negative news coverage — and then likely taking the blame for it, even if such a stupid strategy was mandated by the C-Suite.

No communications professional wants to be forced into “damage control” mode. This only hurts the organization’s brand image and leads to a loss of accountability and public trust via bad press. That’s one reason why you should always strive to be truthful and transparent with journalists.

Transparency means going the extra mile in maximizing information dissemination to the media while minimizing spin control over a story.

That’s why the third rule of mastering media relations is being transparent. The initial two rules, addressed here in recent articles, are:

1) Forging mutually beneficial media relationships, and

2) Always being accessible to reporters.

Empowering Communicators

Meaningful transparency will only succeed if and when communicators are empowered from the top-down by corporate leadership.

In today’s fast evolving mobile, digital and virtual Information Age, your job as a PR person requires seamless access to all necessary and relevant information (to the extent possible). And beyond access, you must also have advance approval to share certain kinds of information in certain kinds of situations. This is also known as situational media relations.

It’s necessary to not only keep pace with the breakneck speed of today’s 24/7 breaking news cycle, but to stay one step ahead by exercising sound judgment and being prepared for the worst.

When a damaging social media story goes viral, there’s simply no time to waste in containing the blaze before it bursts into a conflagration. Lack of transparency is anathema to effective media relations.

Every minute lost in a crisis communications situation is another minute in which hundreds or thousands of people potentially consume negative news and pass it on via a multiplier effect. Hence, every second really does count.

That’s also why PR practitioners need more access to internal data and information to effectively do their jobs. Therefore, talk to your boss about difficult media situations that might arise and agree on a response before the proverbial “shit hits the fan” and flies in your face.

If information is being withheld by the “powers that be” for bureaucratic reasons then PR pros need to ask them why, because the company will be held accountable by the media — not to mention the board of directors, shareholders and consumers.

Executive leaders should brief the communications team on the specific reasons for rejecting media requests, as aggressive reporters will demand answers. Thus, a prepared response or statement might be needed.

Communications teams need to formulate effective internal approaches to break down entrenched bureaucratic walls that prevent information from flowing freely when news breaks.

Remember: transparency always triumphs.

Exceptions to the Rule

Even though transparency is tantamount to successful media relations, there are always narrow exceptions to the rule.

These instances are usually based on legal prohibitions in divulging certain information to the press.

Here’s an example:

When I worked as a longtime media spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), I received questions from reporters about pending discrimination cases in the investigative process. However, the standard response was always the same:

  • “We can’t confirm or deny that any specific cases exists.”

Yet some aggressive reporters rejected that answer. Thus, I further explained how the confidentiality provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) strictly prohibited federal officials from commenting on a case prior to any EEOC litigation.

Still, a few reporters would grow frustrated and irate in demanding the public’s right to know. Some journalists threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel.

When that occurred, I had to double down by making it clear that violating the law’s confidentiality provisions could subject me to fine or imprisonment.

I then reiterated the point that information on specific discrimination cases are only publicized by the EEOC if and when the agency sues an employer, at which time a press release is issued. Further, a FOIA request does not supersede the confidentiality clause of Title VII of the CRA, Section 709(e).

This type of exchange usually caused rabid reporters to back off and quote me about why the EEOC could not comment. This is important because you want to avoid commenting with “no comment” (which arouses public suspicion). It’s more effective to explain to a reporter why you are precluded from commenting.

Building Public Trust

Despite the aforementioned rare exception to the rule, you should recognize that transparency is what builds or repairs public trust and accountability in your organization.

Transparency helps to enhance a company’s brand image.

But trying to stonewall reporters will only make a bad news story worse. Thus, if you or your boss are the type of PR people who guard information like national security secrets, remember the truth will eventually get out anyway in today’s ubiquitous Information Age.

Again, communicators should not be forced to face internal obstacles in obtaining the necessary information to allow the facts to flourish. Still, it’s unfortunate that some micro-managers value bureaucratic rules over building public trust through transparency.

Unfortunately, some old habits from old-school managers die hard.

Cover-Up Worse Than Crime

Throughout modern history, many powerful leaders have learned the hard lesson that, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.”

This astute adage grew out of the infamous Watergate scandal during the Administration of President Richard Nixon.

The Washington Post’s persistent investigative reporting exposed the existence of the Watergate tapes, which Nixon refused to release and allegedly tried to destroy. This scenario ultimately caused the president to resign in disgrace, while putting The Post on the map as a leading national newspaper.

If you’re not familiar with the events leading up to Nixon’s downfall, then I suggest you read the book or watch the movie, “All the President’s Men.”

As a result of the Watergate mess, nearly every public scandal now has the ominous word “gate” attached to it.

While nixing transparency might provide some short-term gain, it will come at the expense of long-term pain when the media unearths the full truth.

Consequently, before you reject a reporter’s legitimate request for information, try following these rules first:

  • Don’t withhold information unless it’s absolutely necessary for legal reasons.
  • Don’t make a reporter file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request if you are able to provide information or data without one.
  • Don’t ever lie to the media because trust is difficult, if not impossible, to regain. Trust is the foundation upon which all media relationships are built. And transparency builds trust.
  • If you’re wrong about the facts or can’t immediately answer a question, admit it up front and then follow-up fast with accurate info.
  • If you cannot fulfill a media request on deadline, explain why. It’s better to under promise and over deliver rather than the other way around.
  • If you can’t speak “on the record” for name attribution, then suggest other credible external sources for journalists to contact.
  • If you must get negative information out, then do so quickly and all at once, if possible, to avoid a prolonged negative news cycle.

The Takeaway

Finally, when it comes to transparency, don’t ever forget the vital role of a free press in an open democratic society. This lesson is more critical now than ever as “fake news” continues to proliferate on social media and accusations are routinely hurled at traditional media.

It remains deeply disturbing that the American President — in addition to other politicians and conservative media outlets — are increasingly labeling mainstream media as “fake news” for purely partisan purposes.

But just because those in power dislike or disagree with unequivocal facts should not allow them to universally dismiss and discredit those facts with impunity.

As President Ronald Reagan and others have remarked, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Unwarranted allegations of “fake news” are disgraceful not only because of the corrosive effect on transparency, but also because of the dangerous “chilling effect” on legitimate news reporting in the public interest.

Being transparent shows the public that you are operating in the spirit of truthfulness for the greater good.

In closing, if you want to master the art of media relations then your ultimate success or failure may hinge on the following:

  1. Building personal relationships with reporters,
  2. Providing around-the-clock access for journalists, and
  3. Trumpeting transparency to build public trust.

Public trust and consumer confidence in your organization are always on the line when it comes to promoting transparency versus covering-up the facts.

Thus, it pays to choose wisely.

DBG

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.