The Good, Bad and Ugly

Corporate affairs teams can be either the bridge or the barrier between a journalist and a good story. Inside Story recently asked journalists to share some of their experiences with corporate relations teams; the great experiences, the bad and what happens when journalists feel they are treated unfairly.

What are the good experiences?

Journalists are happy to relay their positive encounters with corporate affairs, with a number of companies named frequently as being good performers.

Many find the best relationships are those that have been built up based on mutual trust and where both the journalist and company representative are able to talk frankly about a situation.
The stronger teams are seen to:

One good example is Macquarie Bank:

“Macquarie Bank’s share price plummeted a few years ago and journalists could have punished them hugely in the press. But as a company they did the right thing by opening up the communication channels, didn’t close down the shutters, they kept talking and provided information to journalists, had a very open media strategy. Had they put up a defensive, closeted approach they would have been punished with the press displaying a lack of confidence in their business model and so on.”

Team trusted to deal with media
Some companies are mentioned as being consistently good at dealing with the media.
One such media team is ANZ Bank, where the key contact is praised for being able to deal directly with queries in a timely manner:

“One of the best things about dealing with ANZ Bank is that he’s in the loop. The CEO trusts and respects him, the CEO imparts information to him…and it means (the key contact) is able to answer most queries authoritatively without simply being a kind of a messenger.”

Many journalists don’t believe this happens often. As a general rule it is thought media relations teams are only useful for the cursory information – things that are black or white – yes or no, facts and figures rather than a story or background.

Bad media relations
Journalists are tough critics when it comes to media relations and have high expectations of corporate relations teams. There are certain behaviours which are particularly deplored. These include:

Journalists tend to have long memories of occasions where they are not allowed access to key people and may hold grudges for many years.

In spite of being a media company, PBL stands out for many journalists as being one of the more difficult companies to deal with. In particular finding it:

Impact on reputation
It is generally accepted that corporate relations teams are there to minimise bad news and be custodians of the company’s reputation. Journalists have no doubt that the way media queries are handled impact a company’s reputation as a whole.

While well managed corporate affairs can build respect, a poorly managed team impacts perceptions across the business, including:

Bad Behaviour in Action
A major Australian financial institution is criticised by journalists for its management of media relations over the past few years. It is thought that recent management changes are slowly improving things, but traditionally it has not dealt with crisis well.
It is criticised for:

As a result, it is thought that both journalists and analysts had a more negative view of the company than was perhaps deserved:

“I think…was a classic example…where their media relations people, and I know from speaking with investors and analysts, that their investor relations people as well, got people offside which led to broader negative perceptions about the bank as a whole.”

The Ugly – ‘Hell hath no fury…’
The Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics states that all journalists should:

Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness, and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis

Journalists do admit, however, that bad experiences with media relations teams can result in a slightly more distorted view of a story:

“Oh, kind of being very selective in facts that are used in stories, highlighting the negative, and ignoring the positive. Not of course that I would ever do that.”

“…it may be that when I’m pissed off with individuals that that kind of does bear out in my copy, I don’t know, but certainly I know it goes on.”

Naturally, no journalist admitted to doing this themselves, all examples are based on hearsay.

“Personally no, but I’m sure it would motivate other people – if they’re having a hard time with a particular company, that might motivate them to work harder to dig up a story that might embarrass that company.”

‘Punishing’ behaviours from journalists might include:

Journalists suggest honesty is the best policy – even if a comment cannot be made to the media, let journalists know politely rather than being defensive and evoking a negative response:

“Its easy to say; ‘We’ll talk when we have the facts straight ourselves’.”