Advocates often mislead or flat-out lie to the media.
Don’t overreact to baseless accusations.
Extensive preparation and viewing issues from your opponent’s point of view will provide clarity and defenses.
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, over fifty national and regional awards.
Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results. I use contents from the book for this article.
I spent 10 years in Washington, D.C., representing two entities funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. One was the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse, the National Criminal Justice Reference Center (where I first started talking to the media). The other was the National Crime Prevention Council, home to “McGruff the Crime Dog” and the “Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign (the most successful effort in public service advertising history).
My years in the Washington, D.C. area provided me with my first national media and marketing experiences. Washington D.C. also offered me my first exposure to advocacy organizations.
I do not exaggerate when I suggest that advocates often mislead or flat-out lie to the media. I have seen firsthand individuals who have more belief than skill, experience, or training stand before a national audience and instruct them on topics they know nothing about. I’m not suggesting that they were mistaken; I’m asserting that they literally knew nothing about their subject matter.
I wish this were an exaggeration, but it’s not. The label “advocacy” does give one the right to express an opinion. That right exists when people providing it have significant experience or training regarding the topic they are addressing.
They will also fabricate “research” or purposely skew data to support their own conclusions. The media are abundantly aware of these people and they like or dislike them based on the needs and prejudices of the reporter.
If the entity is the National Association of Widgets and if the issue is the widget’s effect on national public policy, then you would assume that the person pronouncing policy has extensive education and skill in widgets. Often they do not; they are only promoters with little to no training regarding the topic they are addressing.
They may not have a clue about the facts. But they will deliver their points with clarity, confidence, and supply compelling human interest stories.
The only defense against advocates misrepresenting data and issues are traditional media relations tactics, which means that you are an expert on your organization and the issues involved. You have the trust of the media. You have established an excellent working relationship with reporters.
Some advocates are like a plague; they will not stop at anything to make a point. They seek to devour anything in their path to accomplish their agendas. If you care about your organization and its issues, baseless or exaggerated charges can quickly get under your skin.
If a reporter calls to tell you that two plus two equals forty-six per an advocate, you need to keep your composure. I have experience with this type of inquiry where I immediately refuted an accusation and it ended up on the front page of the newspaper in an unflattering way. Unfortunately, the story went regional. I overreacted.
Don’t overreact. Yes, the charge is absurd but the reporter may not know that, or she may philosophically support the organization making the accusation. Tell the reporter that you need time to investigate the issue.
Don’t fall into the trap of a compelling human interest story. The advocate is trying his best to make you and your organization look insensitive. Always express concern for the plight of another not because it’s a tactic, but because we are honorable people doing an honorable job. Offer to investigate and report later in the day.
After accessing, issue a statement. If you know and trust the reporter, go off the record and provide the context and background necessary. Know how to take charge of issues if you are pitted against advocates during a live exchange (more on this in a future article).
But the best defense is to embrace accusations and be ready for them. Know the issues and how they can be interpreted. Take the other side or the argument. Have access to visuals. Prepare for quick changes to your website. Talk to executives and attorneys about probable charges so you are ready.
Just remember to keep your composure and put a smile on your face. The reporter may not know just how baseless the allegations are. Telling her that the question is absurd may play into the hands of advocates.
Knowledge, preparation and a cool and friendly demeanor will save the day for this and most inquiries.
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com for the entire series.
Contact me at [email protected].