Being transparent builds public trust and safeguards the brand image…
If you’re a veteran communicator like me, you already know that mastering media relations is akin to a circus trapeze performer swinging hundreds of feet above ground without a net. On one hand, you’re being pulled by your company’s executive leaders who want to micromanage the message by endless and unmitigated nitpicking. On the other hand, you’re being pulled by the news media to release requested information ASAP — regardless of what internal hoops you must jump through to get it. But one factor to always keep in mind is that being transparent is tantamount to successful media relations. Here’s why:
Fostering transparency involves being honest, open and forthcoming with the media. This builds respect and goodwill in the short term, as well as a strong bond of trust over the long run.
EDITOR’S NOTE: ENJOY PART 3 AND PRIOR OF THIS SERIES BELOW
Don’t forget that withholding key information from the media, or letting it out piecemeal, is never a good idea and only gives legs to a damaging story. The result of trying to trample transparency is being compelled to respond to the drip-drip-drip debacle of multi-day negative news coverage — and then likely taking the blame for it, even if such a stupid strategy was mandated by the C-Suite.
No communications professional wants to be forced into “damage control” mode. This only hurts the organization’s brand image and leads to a loss of accountability and public trust via bad press. That’s one reason why you should always strive to be truthful and transparent with journalists.
Transparency means going the extra mile in maximizing information dissemination to the media while minimizing spin control over a story.
That’s why the third rule of mastering media relations is being transparent. The initial two rules, addressed here in recent articles, are:
1) Forging mutually beneficial media relationships, and
2) Always being accessible to reporters.
Meaningful transparency will only succeed if and when communicators are empowered from the top-down by corporate leadership.
In today’s fast evolving mobile, digital and virtual Information Age, your job as a PR person requires seamless access to all necessary and relevant information (to the extent possible). And beyond access, you must also have advance approval to share certain kinds of information in certain kinds of situations. This is also known as situational media relations. It’s necessary to not only keep pace with the breakneck speed of today’s 24/7 breaking news cycle but to stay one step ahead by exercising sound judgment and being prepared for the worst.
When a damaging social media story goes viral, there’s simply no time to waste in containing the blaze before it bursts into a conflagration. Lack of transparency is anathema to effective media relations.
Every minute lost in a crisis communications situation is another minute in which hundreds or thousands of people potentially consume negative news and pass it on via a multiplier effect. Hence, every second really does count. That’s also why PR practitioners need more access to internal data and information to effectively do their jobs. Therefore, talk to your boss about difficult media situations that might arise and agree on a response before the proverbial “shit hits the fan” and flies in your face.
If information is being withheld by the “powers that be” for bureaucratic reasons then PR pros need to ask them why, because the company will be held accountable by the media — not to mention the board of directors, shareholders and consumers.
Executive leaders should brief the communications team on the specific reasons for rejecting media requests, as aggressive reporters will demand answers. Thus, a prepared response or statement might be needed.
Communications teams need to formulate effective internal approaches to break down entrenched bureaucratic walls that prevent information from flowing freely when news breaks.
Remember: transparency always triumphs.
Exceptions to the Rule
Even though transparency is tantamount to successful media relations, there are always narrow exceptions to the rule. These instances are usually based on legal prohibitions in divulging certain information to the press.
Here’s an example:
When I worked as a longtime media spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), I received questions from reporters about pending discrimination cases in the investigative process. However, the standard response was always the same: “We can’t confirm or deny that any specific cases exist.”
When that occurred, I had to double down by making it clear that violating the law’s confidentiality provisions could subject me to fine or imprisonment.
Yet some aggressive reporters rejected that answer. Thus, I further explained how the confidentiality provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) strictly prohibited federal officials from commenting on a case prior to any EEOC litigation. Still, a few reporters would grow frustrated and irate in demanding the public’s right to know. Some journalists threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel. When that occurred, I had to double down by making it clear that violating the law’s confidentiality provisions could subject me to fine or imprisonment. I then reiterated the point that information on specific discrimination cases are only publicized by the EEOC if and when the agency sues an employer, at which time a press release is issued. Further, a FOIA request does not supersede the confidentiality clause of Title VII of the CRA, Section 709(e).
This type of exchange usually caused rabid reporters to back off and quote me about why the EEOC could not comment. This is important because you want to avoid commenting with “no comment” (which arouses public suspicion). It’s more effective to explain to a reporter why you are precluded from commenting.
Building Public Trust
Despite the aforementioned rare exception to the rule, you should recognize that transparency is what builds or repairs public trust and accountability in your organization.
Transparency helps to enhance a company’s brand image.
But trying to stonewall reporters will only make a bad news story worse. Thus, if you or your boss are the type of PR people who guard information like national security secrets, remember the truth will eventually get out anyway in today’s ubiquitous Information Age.
Again, communicators should not be forced to face internal obstacles in obtaining the necessary information to allow the facts to flourish. Still, it’s unfortunate that some micro-managers value bureaucratic rules over building public trust through transparency. Unfortunately, some old habits from old-school managers die hard.
Cover-Up Worse Than Crime
Throughout modern history, many powerful leaders have learned the hard lesson that, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.” This astute adage grew out of the infamous Watergate scandal during the Administration of President Richard Nixon. The Washington Post’s persistent investigative reporting exposed the existence of the Watergate tapes, which Nixon refused to release and allegedly tried to destroy. This scenario ultimately caused the president to resign in disgrace while putting The Post on the map as a leading national newspaper.