When is it OK to ban hostile journalists from using your press office?

There may be times – especially if your organisation is controversial – that you find that a publication routinely writes negative stories about you. This can be depressing, and how you deal with it requires caution.

It is easier to do something about factually inaccurate stories than about merely hostile ones. In the UK, television stations are regulated by Ofcom (and, in the case of the BBC, by the BBC Trust). The newspapers have an Editors’ Code of Conduct and an independent regulator, Ipso. If a newspaper story is materially inaccurate, you may wish to submit a letter for publication, or request a correction. If the newspaper accepts that you may be in the right, they will readily accept these suggestions, as if you make a more complaint to Ipso, it will waste considerable time and has greater potential for embarrassment.

The best technique with hostile journalists, in the first instance, is to be as nice as you can to them – even if you do need to correct their perspective by, for example, issuing a statement on your website. Rising to the bait and denouncing them could encourage more hostile coverage at some future juncture.

Sometimes the correct response is to cut off all ties – but this has significant risks. In 2012, David Tovar, Walmart’s vice president for communications, announced that “We have made a business decision not to participate in [the online publication’s] articles going forward due to the one-sided reporting and unfair and unbalanced editorial decisions made by … reporters and editors.”

This was an effective strategy because the media coverage around the ban has acted as a loud rebuttal of the website’s criticisms. And the technique wasn’t unprecedented. In 1984, Mobil Oil, fed up with coverage in a major US paper, boycotted the publication’s journalists. The head of public affairs Herb Schmertz said: “We concluded that the situation couldn’t get worse. We did it for our own self-respect.”

But it can backfire, as the act of banning a publication will often be seen as unfair in the eyes of wider public – and as an attempt to stifle debate or hide the truth. The banned publication, if it is of note, can turn the ban into a huge negative story in and of itself.

There have been occasions when bans have turned a difficult relationship into a toxic one – and the chances of such consequences increases with the importance – in the eyes of the public – of the publication. A charm offensive is normally a better strategy, and this should always be deployed first.

The dangers of a hostile press are one reason that companies in the public eye retain PR consultants with crisis communications experience, who can be deployed at short notice. Often, when an unexpected crisis hits, companies with underfunded PR operations are unable to react quickly enough to the needs of media. And speed is important. That is why it is vital that social media is monitored, as this can provide an early warning of a crisis.

As the phrase goes: “A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it is why, even when a journalist is unsympathetic to your position, banning them from your press office should be a last resort.

This post is based on an extract from The PR Masterclass (out now from Wiley)

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