Public Relations 101 – Lesson One – Don’t Lie and Don’t Say No Comment.

In Media relations. on February 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm

When most people face the media, they usually have one of three reactions:

  • They panic and curl up in a fetal position under their desk.
  • They get angry and decide to go on the attack
  • Or they blithely think everything will be okay and do nothing to prepare.

I hope it’s obvious none of those approaches will work. All three will get you into trouble, leading to a variety of consequences, none of them good. Bad publicity can depress a company’s stock price, destroy its reputation, and drive customers away. Remember, perception is reality. If it is perceived in the press, blogosphere, and by the public, that your company is doing something wrong – even if you aren’t – it is difficult to turn that perception around.

The goal of this post, and the others that will follow, is to provide a primer on media relations. I am basing this on my 25 years as a journalist and my seven years in marketing communications. What I hope to do in this series of blogs is help you and your company develop a proactive strategy so you build and maintain a positive reputation. Being reactive after is never good. To quote Vince Lombardi’s, the best defense is a good offense.

Remember, there are no guarantees. Sometimes you can do everything right and still take a hit. I will deal with what to do with those cases in a later post.

By way of background, I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company –  JJC Communications LLC .If you want to know more about me and my company, click the link.

Okay, enough introduction. Let’s get to it. 

The thing to remember is that reporters are not your enemy or your friend. They have a job to do. That’s all. When I was a reporter I used to say that I will hand you the rope, but what you do with it is entirely your business. I hope these blogs will keep you from hanging yourself.

So, let’s discuss the overriding rule of marketing communications – Don’t Lie. If you do nothing else that I suggest, obey this rule. Do not deviate from it, ever. Why? Because you will get caught. And when you get caught, you have destroyed the most important thing your company has – its credibility. Once that’s gone, good luck in the marketplace.

How will you get caught? Well as Ben Franklin said: “three can keep a secret if two are dead.” Inevitably, somebody will talk about the lie. You think your employees and associates all love you? If you do, I have some land for sale in Louisiana I would like to discuss with you – it’s only underwater for 11 months. 

And if not one of your associates, it could be a competitor. Or, you might have left a paper trail. Or somebody with a big mouth might talk and be overheard. I will also discuss that in another blog.

Don’t think if you lie to just one reporter, you will be okay. Journalists are the biggest gossips – with each other – on the face of the earth. Word will quickly spread. No one will trust you. Yes, journalists compete, but its more akin to lawyers than sports teams. Like lawyers, journalists will try to tear each other’s throats out pursuing a story, then go have a beer together.

As importantly, catching a liar is a great story. Want a sure way to end up on Page 1, or be the lead item on the evening news, or become the subject of a hundred blogs? Lie. The public will soon know that your company cannot be trusted. Remember too, it is not like the old days when only the people in your city or state might find out. There is this thing called the Internet. Odds are the entire world will know within hours about your transgression.

Okay, so you’ve decided not to lie. You get asked a question you don’t want to answer, so you say “no comment.” This is rule 1A. Saying no comment is always wrong. I don’t care what your attorney told you. We will deal with the role of attorneys in reputation management later. Basically, consider any legal advice carefully. Attorneys think about only one thing – litigation. They too often don’t consider the long term effects of destroying a reputation and credibility.

Saying no comment to a journalist is waving a red flag. When I was reporter, if somebody said no comment, I immediately assumed they were hiding something. I would start digging to find what it was. I knew the general area, because I had asked the question. I usually found out.

I will give  you an example. Milwaukee used to host a very popular Circus Parade. Wisconsin is the original home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. There is a large circus museum in Baraboo, WI. The state has had a long love affair with the circus.

The parade was originally held in the 1950s with wagons and other things provided by the museum. The primary sponsor was the old Schlitz Brewing Company. The parade folded when the brewery closed. 

In 1985, a group decided to revive the parade. The backers had set up a huge press conference for a Monday morning to announce its return. The announcement was geared toward our rival Milwaukee paper, which was published in the afternoon. The parade organizers called our city desk on a Sunday afternoon to tell us to come to the press conference. We would have none of that. It meant we would be scooped on a large local story.

So, I was assigned to find out what was going on.  The first person I called, one I knew was probably part of the revival, lied to me. And I knew it. It was the way they acted. That made me angry. So, I called the next person, who also knew what was going on. He “no commented” me. Now frankly, I was pissed. I started really digging until I got the story. We beat every media outlet in town. I ruined their carefully planned media event. My editors were very pleased.

The organizers could have avoided the whole thing if they had just told us what was going on. They could have still found a way to have their big event. 

So, what do you do ? You say I cannot answer that question and here’s why. Give a viable explanation, such as it is a competitive area we don’t want to tell our rivals about. Be credible about your answer because it will be checked. If you tell the truth, and you can back it up, most reporters or bloggers will be okay.

Okay, that’s the first lesson.

There is no quiz, but I hoped you learned something. 

Please let me know what you think. I appreciate the feedback.

Next week we will talk about interviews and going off the record.

My background: I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company – JJC Communications LLC. If you want to know more about my company, and myself, click the link.

 I am available for speaking on media relations, or counseling your company on that or on your other public relations needs. I can be reached at 414-763-8310 or jjccomm@wi.twcbc.com.

  1. Hi Jeff, this was a very insightful post. I believe social technologies will make it much more difficult to hide or shade the truth. Social technologies = Transparency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: