Media Meltdown: When Relationships Go Bad
Editor’s note: This is a re-post of an article Merritt penned on what happens when professional media relationships go bad.
A story broke last weekend in The Washington Post that a military spokesperson has filed a complaint against a major metro newspaper reporter covering Guantanamo detainees over alleged continued abusive behavior from the reporter to the military spokesperson.
If you’re reading this post, you probably know one or both of the individuals involved, so I won’t go into further gory details.
I am struck by this story – as I’m sure PR professionals and journalists everywhere are – and can only ask questions.
How did the relationship ever get this bad?
Why are these two still working together?
Until this issue is resolved, the PAO filing the complaint against the paper has a clear conflict in dealing with the outlet in any way. At the same time, the military (or any organization providing media access who is treated in a like manner) is justified in banning the individual correspondent based on the allegations in the complaint.
It is disturbing to read that this antagonistic exchange has apparently endured for several years. Media relations professionals, be they government public information or public affairs personnel, corporate communications staff, or hired agency folks, have one primary task: maintaining relationships.
• This means keeping the right interface with decision makers and operators so that one is a trusted counselor and advisor to your commander, boss or client.
• It means ensuring members of the media trust you to do right by them by providing thoughtful, truthful information, and the background context they need to understand your on-the-record information.
• It means understanding the ultimate audience for this information and how they will respond to it.
• It also means taking a stand when necessary to preserve professional ethics and standards, and knowing when to sever a toxic relationship.
Journalists are also accountable in this relationship. We expect news coverage to be fair and untinged by emotion or bias. I would guess it’s impossible for this reporter’s coverage to be neutral given the level and tone of comments reported by The Washington Post. Haranguing your source as is described in last weekend’s story is about as professional as going to someone’s office for a meeting and relieving yourself in the potted palm in the lobby.
A communications meltdown on this level can be nearly impossible to recover from. The spokesperson resents the journalist, figures anything that is said will be given the most negative interpretation possible, and communications from that spokesperson are adjusted accordingly. The journalist views everything heard from the spokesperson with a jaundiced eye, presumes bias, and news pieces are adjusted accordingly.
The story at Guantanamo is too important to be tinged with this kind of animosity.
Military public affairs personnel have a tough time – pleasing the commander, and pleasing the reporter simultaneously. PAOs are expected to be smiling hosts, subject matter experts and magical reversers of federal policy. And Guantanamo has to be one of the toughest “accounts” for any PAO to get. Physical access alone is a huge challenge, let alone the security and legal issues surrounding the topic.
At the end of the day, it’s the PAO/spokesperson/flack who’s left holding the bag, no matter how the story turns out. If the media outlet is getting positive response and continued reader/viewership from its coverage, the editor/producer/publisher may not care if their journalist isn’t nice to the source.
The hard answer here is that this particular relationship has to end. The military should act swiftly to ban the reporter based on this behavior (if true), while making it clear that the newspaper is welcome to send another correspondent. The military should also make it clear that another PAO will be assigned to liaise with the newspaper until this matter is resolved.
But what I really want to know is, how did the relationship ever get this bad?
As the “big boss” at Vox Optima, Merritt ranks creating her company as “a bigger deal than coming in third on a game show.” A radio disc jockey, a Navy public affairs officer at 20, and a business owner at 35, Merritt lives her life going several different directions at once. In addition to head paycheck writer, Merritt brings considerable strategic communication, media relations, campaign and issue management expertise to Vox Optima as well as being the only adult supervision around here. You can find Merritt hanging out on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or you can shoot her an email.
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