Inside the Fourth Estate

Tips from a veteran journalist can help companies use the press to their advantage

P> In the second part of this three-part series, we examine how businesses should handle bad press, what "on the record" means and what journalists view as a "hot" story.


Bad Press

What should you do if you receive bad press that you think is unfair? Call the reporter and tell him so. Too many people don't call because they think it will reopen the wound and that another negative story will appear. That's generally not the case. Once that story is done, the reporter is off doing something completely different and often times has no intention of going back immediately into territory he has already covered. You need to ask him why he may have weighed someone else's view over yours, or why he may have misrepresented something you said.

Return the Phone Call

One of the things that irks reporters more than anything else is people not returning phone calls, particularly people who are paid by taxpayers. Respect the journalist's deadline. Always call a reporter back. You do not have to speak on the record. But if you don't talk to the reporter you will never get your point of view expressed.

Every day we work with people who don't want their name ever to appear in the paper. This is part of our job, and we have no problem with it. If it's essential for us to have a quote from you or your organization, we'll ask you for one or ask if you can give us someone who can be quoted.

Again, we constantly speak with people whose names never appear in the paper. These people help us frame our stories so that we're not skewing our coverage. Their perspective changes the way we write our stories. It changes the questions we ask and the information we seek. In most stories you read in Manufacturing News, there are many people's comments, perspectives and questions you'll never know are there.

On hundreds of occasions, working on deadline, I've received a call back from a principal in the story I'm writing who doesn't want his name to appear. After the conversation, the story, which already may have been written, gets changed -- sometimes drastically. Every sentence is altered. Many are thrown out and replaced by new ones. The biting edge is taken out of the story. If it's a controversial or negative story and if you miss calling the reporter back, you have no one to blame but yourself for the lousy press.

On the Record, Off the Record

Most people don't know the difference between on the record, on background, deep background and off the record. These terms are confusing and many reporters don't know the differences, either. The people I have found outside of the press who understand these terms are those working in Congress and the White House -- particularly in the State Department and at the Office of Management and Budget.

On the record means that you should assume that anything you say could be quoted. On background means that what you say can be quoted, but that your name can't appear. The organization you work for can, however, be identified and in such a case you have to discuss with the reporter how you want your quotes to be attributed. "Deep background" means that what you say can be used but that neither you nor your organization can be identified. Off the record means that what you say can never appear in print.

Most people go by the rule that "off the record" means the information will not be used in the story and will only serve to put things into perspective.

Most people use "off the record" when they don't want to see their name used or organization identified. If you don't want any of the information you are providing to ever be used, then say so, or better yet, don't tell the reporter what it is you were going to say. Otherwise, assume that everything you tell a reporter is on the record, even if it's at a party -- and even if the reporter is your son.

My cousin was a reporter in Seattle. He died of AIDS four years ago, but during the last two years of his life he wrote a column on his disease every two weeks for the Seattle Times. Once when he was visiting his home, his mother told him that her dentist didn't want to work on her teeth because her son had AIDS. My cousin reported it in his column and the piece caused a hubbub in the small town. As a reporter, his natural inclination was to write the truth, which for him was what his family and others told him. They were interesting anecdotes and important to the story he was covering -- his illness. But after their names appeared in print a couple of times, his entire family watched what they said to him -- all the way up to his death. The reporter's instinct runs deep.

A Journalist's Viewpoint

Reporters look at the world in a completely different way than anybody else in society. They're constantly listening for things they've not heard before, that raise flags and pique their curiosity. Just as policemen drive around looking at the one-inch by one-inch registration tags on license plates, reporters spot things nobody else sees. I was chairing a panel at a conference, and a speaker mentioned something interesting I had not heard before. For the first time during the hour-long event in a crowded room, my eyes and those of one of my reporters covering the meeting met. A story had presented itself. For everyone else in the room, the speaker's off-hand comment sounded as bland as any of the hundreds he made. But for us, it was the payoff for having to listen to things we already knew.

Exclusive Stories

What motivates a reporter more than anything else is an exclusive story. Getting a good story is a lot like a company discovering a new technology or product idea.

Remember the 1980s debate about technology transfer from the national laboratories? The government was offering non-exclusive patent rights to any company wanting its technology. Except there were no takers. But once the laws changed allowing the laboratories to license patents exclusively to companies, suddenly there was value associated with them, and the technology transfer functions at the laboratories started to hum with activity.

The same is true of news stories. Every reporter wants an exclusive. They want to claim ownership to a hot story. One of the most gratifying experiences as a reporter is breaking an exclusive story. It's what makes our job exciting.

Unfortunately, most exclusive stories are critical or negative because people try to hide something.

Positive stories tend to be non-exclusive because the company or individual involved looks for attention or free publicity. It's no fun being a pack journalist, and it's no fun feeling like a publicist.

You can help a reporter find exclusive stories, and they can be positive stories. If you get to know a journalist and become a source, you can feed him ideas for stories. Companies opening new production lines, hiring new workers or introducing innovative products are excellent stories. A company introducing total quality management or changing its management structure is an excellent story. A company that grows its business via the information superhighway is an excellent story.

Richard McCormack is editor and publisher of Manufacturing News, based in Annandale, Va. He has been a reporter covering science and technology from Washington, D.C., for the past 13 years. He can be reached by phone at (703) 705-2664, or by e-mail (rmccorma@bmpcoe.org).


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