Media relations

Should PRs mimic Donald Trump’s style with the media?

What is the most appropriate and productive way to respond to an inaccurate story in the media? Donald Trump's approach seems wanting

Ask any journalist if they or a colleague have been banned from a press conference, media dinner or business meeting and they will regale you with tales of wildeyed chief executives and brow beaten, apologetic PRs.

They will wear their banning as a badge of pride, evidence that they must be hitting a nerve with the company they are reporting on and will nearly always use it as a catalyst to dig even deeper into the organisation’s affairs.

But, despite the obvious pitfalls of banning publications and taking the fight to the media, the political sphere seems to think they know better, as Donald Trump’s White House is attempting to prove.

With ‘fake news’ bandied about by both UK Government ministers and opposition counterparts like free bottles of water at a WH Smith store, can we expect to see the animosity towards the press spread to the FTSE’s C-suites? Or should it be business as usual?

There is no doubt that the media and business landscapes have changed in the last decade, with newsrooms being squeezed and the public’s insatiable demands for more transparency from companies growing.

But with these changes, should businesses take a leaf out of Trump’s playbook and hit back? Or do the same rules of building solid relationships, explaining your company’s aims and ambitions, still apply?

Matt Peacock, group director of corporate affairs for Vodafone, explains: ‘I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time and I cannot think of a single instance in my career when a decision not to engage has made things better over the long run.’

His voice is not alone. Of all the PR professionals CorpComms Magazine spoke to, not one felt banning the media was ever the answer, and all who had been or are with companies that have excluded certain outlets said they felt embarrassed and advised against it. But sometimes, chief executives think they know better.

Tesco famously banned the Financial Times’ retail correspondent from a media dinner, leading to writers from other newspapers boycotting the event.

British Gas acted in a similar nature, banning the Guardian’s highly regarded energy editor after a series of negative stories around pricing were published by the newspaper. Energy writers from other newspapers said they too would boycott the event, eventually forcing British Gas to back down.

BHS banned the Sunday Times from attending a store tour in Watford, due to then-boss Dominic Chappell being upset at stories by the paper questioning his suitability to run the nowdefunct retailer. Other journalists on the tour said they were unaware of the ban and would have boycotted if they had known.

Ocado’s former chairman Lord Grade also banned journalists from attending the online grocer’s annual general meeting – a first for a retailer – leading to a handful of journalists turning up anyway and standing outside. Grade, who knows a thing or two about the media, as former chairman of the BBC and ITV, told the assembled reporters, with a straight face, that the ban was to allow a more honest, open debate. Instead, it led to more coverage than usual of a meeting rarely attended by the press and editorials lambasting his decision.

When a media outlet or a journalist writes something that’s inaccurate or wrong, you’ve got to ask why it’s happened

Alex Brummer, City editor at the Daily Mail at the time summed up the mood. He wrote: ‘Such closed meetings have, in the past, been confined to companies that have something terrible to hide, or the simply paranoid like security group G4S. That a company with a broad shareholder base and big consumer interest should indulge is such Stalinist-like behaviour is incomprehensible.’

But despite the bans, which live on longer than the content of the meetings themselves, relations between business and the media appear to remain strong and are nowhere near the levels of animosity between journalists and politicians. In fact, all the experts we spoke to said they would not follow Trump’s footsteps, with some calling the ideas on how he is dealing with the press as absurd. Peacock says: ‘The idea that you can take an entire segment of the media industry, exclude them and then think that the lack of engagement will make things better is, frankly, laughable.’

Rebecca Shelley, global head of corporate affairs at Tullet Prebon, agrees and says she would advise against Trump-style tactics. She asks: ‘What’s Trump trying to do? Is he trying to disenfranchise the media? Will the media think Maybe I should be a little bit careful? If my boss came to me and said he wants to do the same – I’m afraid I’d laugh at him.’

So, given this, what should comms directors do when faced with negative press? Peacock suggests one approach: ‘When a media outlet or a journalist writes something that’s inaccurate or wrong, you’ve got to ask why it’s happened. Usually it’s because the reporter has simply got some of the facts wrong, which means in turn that it’s important for me and my team to invest more time with that reporter to help him or her understand the background details better.’

Being able to ‘set the record straight’ requires strong relationships with journalists – and the ability to persuade the CEO that they won’t bite.

Businesses like ours are now actually trying to lead the way by being more transparent and going above and beyond what’s required

Shelley explains the importance of maintaining an open dialogue. She says: ‘My view with the media and analysts is always that you should build relationships with people. You should meet someone on background, find out what they’re interested in, get to know them a bit, and develop that relationship over time because it’s hard to engage with anybody on the record if you’ve never had a meeting with them before and don’t know them.

‘I’ve worked with a number of CEOs who haven’t always dealt with the media much before. I explain to them that journalists are just humans like them and me, that it can be a really interesting relationship, and you can discuss their views, and on occasion disagree with them.’

James Igoe, head of media relations at Deloitte, agrees. ‘We really try to encourage being open with the media, trying to get our partners out there and meeting journalists to understand their agenda, in a fluid conversation that goes both ways,’ he says.

‘There used to be a lot more nervousness about being open and transparent with media, but today there’s undoubtedly a shift away from that. Businesses like ours are now actually trying to lead the way by being more transparent and going above and beyond what’s required.’

But, despite all growth and better understanding between comms professionals and the media, both are in agreement that it is harder to get a company’s message across because of the profound changes to the media landscape.

Gone are the days when a newspaper would have enough staff to cover one business sector each, and the push for publishing online faster than ever, with journalists now expected to write several stories a day, means getting them out of the office for a coffee is an uphill task.

Peacock explains: ‘What is happening in the world of professional journalism is a gradual de-skilling in terms of sector knowledge. There are now business journalists within Tier 1 media outlets (including national and international newspapers) who are responsible for covering up to five different industrial sectors on a daily basis.

‘Five or ten years ago, those outlets would have had one correspondent covering each sector who, over the years, became a real expert in that field. So, the potential for journalists to get it wrong now is much higher. They are bright, young and ambitious people who want to get it right but they are so much more inexperienced than their equivalents in the past.’

But what happens if the best laid plans still fall apart and a correction is required? Are businesses still reaching for the lawyers? Or, with the changes in press regulation, could they be calling up the regulators?

Regulation in particular has been in the media recently. The Government approved a Royal Charter for Impress as a regulator, however, all of the national newspapers, and many local and regional papers, have refused to sign up.

Instead, they have joined self-regulated Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which replaced the defunct Press Complaints Commission, shut down in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Yet businesses rarely go to the press regulator. IPSO has secured 15 front-page apologies since it was founded – none of which were for businesses. In fact, IPSO said it has received barely any complaints from businesses – Whirlpool and Bonhams the only examples that could be found. The latter led to an amendment to the article online.

One suggestion for businesses preferring to reach for lawyers is because, simply, most organisations can afford it, while another is that many communications directors see calling in the regulator as just as much a nuclear option as getting a legal letter fired off.

Most are loathe to use lawyers in the first place – fearing that the relationship with a handful of sector specialists could be ruined – and even if a letter is sent in, the story is online and can spread like wildfire, with little to do to stop it successfully.

As Peacock puts it: ‘Formal redress mechanisms are essentially analogue in nature. They’re not really suited to the age of global digital communications. When it’s out, it’s out. The damage is done.’

But, ultimately, is the openness, relationship building and background meetings worth it? And how can you persuade a stubborn chief executive that they should hold their nose and interact with the journalists writing about them?

Sorrelle Cooper, director of communications at accountancy firm KPMG, explains: ‘It’s important to listen to your boss’ frustrations but the reality is that public relations isn’t about connecting with the media – it’s about connecting with the public.’

Formal redress mechanisms are essentially analogue in nature. They’re not really suited to the age of global digital communications

But perhaps one of the best ways to show the importance of good relations is to look at a recent example perfectly illustrated in recent years in the retail sector.

Phil Clarke, former boss of Tesco, and Dalton Philips, former boss of Morrisons, were both sacked after suffering a torrid time running their respective supermarkets.

Clarke (who banned the FT from a media dinner) rarely met with journalists, thoroughly disliked press conferences, often being ushered in and out of the rooms without so much as a handshake of the specialist correspondents sent to cover him. When he was sacked, he was savaged in the press and has not been heard of since.

By comparison, Philips had met nearly all the retail correspondents, happily handed his mobile phone number out and would pick up the phone to journalists who had written stories with which he disagreed to have a frank conversation.

When he was sacked, he took part in a conference call with journalists alongside the company’s chairman (who had taken the decision to replace him) and answered as many questions as possible.

He was given a tough, but warm, send off in the papers – and has since found a new job as the chairman of Byron Burgers.

So, even if you cannot persuade your boss that journalists are humans, who get dressed in the morning just like them, ask them what kind of legacy they want in the media. And if they still don’t care, you could always go nuclear, by gently point out that part of the reason they get a multi-million-pound salary probably includes answering the odd tough question from the press.

As one chief executive, who wished to remain anonymous, says: ‘There are times when I think, I should just become a chief operating officer and not have to deal with all the media, but then I look at how much I’m paid and think for that sort of money, I really ought to step up.’

This article first appeared in issue 113