How to Survive a Media Mauling

If you're caught in the jaws of the press, only the truth will set you free

How do you handle a situation where the media does not have the facts and seems not to want them, especially when their reports have a negative impact on your career and integrity? — Anonymous

Your complaint sounds familiar and not just because the Republican Party has named the media Public Enemy No. 1 this campaign season. Frustration with media coverage has been around since, well, since media coverage began. None other than Thomas Jefferson once complained that the press feeds "as wolves do upon the blood of a lamb." Then again, Jefferson also said that given the choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he'd readily choose the latter. Free societies could not stand, he believed, without free speech.

If you agree—and we'll assume you do—then you're like every public person today, no matter the sphere in which you operate, be it politics, business, or the local school board. Your only choice is to "handle" the media as it handles you: proactively. To see what happens if you don't, look at recent events in the financial industry. Every bank that said too little about what it knew or said what it needed to say too late in the game has ended up in the media grinder.

Now, we don't know your situation, but we'll make one more assumption: that you—or someone close to you—faced some unflattering coverage. You may have done everything right in getting your side of the story across. Just to check, ask yourself if you've followed the three best guidelines we know for protecting career and integrity in a publicity maelstrom.

First, have you told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Crazy as it sounds in this day and age, people in public crises still somehow cling to the notion that they can control information flow. They think they can tell portions of their story, leaving out the personal, messy, or confusing parts, and still have the media (and the public) consider their comments "truthful." The problem is, whatever you leave out of your story will be filled in—if not with facts, then with conjecture, rumor, or opinion. Is that unfair? It doesn't matter. The media's job is to tell a complete story. Your job, if you're in the public eye, is to protect yourself by helping them get it, warts and all, with your perspective attached every step of the way.

Second, have you transmitted the same message to everyone? If there is one mistake that practically guarantees negative publicity, it's adjusting your point of view for different audiences. Barack Obama, for instance, took a barrage of criticism when, after praising the values of religious worship and gun ownership at Midwestern rallies, he derided the same at a private fund-raising party in San Francisco.

Businesspeople are prone to the same mistake. We know a former CEO who carried note cards so he wouldn't mix up his separate talking points. He'd have one story for his board, another for employees, and a third for Wall Street. No wonder so few analysts trusted him, a reality reflected in his company's stock price.

Finally, have you taken your media coverage into your own hands? Time was, the media had the last word. The Web made it so there are no more last words. Sure, it can be used against you in a media firestorm, what with thousands of amateur news sites and blogs. But that's all the more reason to use the Web for your own defense, if not offense. Celebrities now speak directly to the public about rumors; companies are doing the same. Individuals who feel maligned now have this option. You may not be able to change the course of your media coverage to your complete liking, but at least you'll have an active role in it—in your own words.

Yes, in some unfolding crises, leaders reasonably can say little or claim lack of information. Who can forget how Mayor Rudy Giuliani, pressed for a death total in the days after September 11, silenced reporters with that unforgettable response: "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear."

Few situations, thankfully, compare to that. Most of the time when the media are clamoring at your door, you have the ability to answer fully and protect yourself as well. The only question is whether you have the guts to engage the media as they engage you.

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