There are both challenges and strengths when you can routinely break with convention. In the case of my publishing business, I can bend the old journalistic rules that writers should not allow interview subjects to review stories before publication. This rule is in place to protect the integrity of the writing process and prevent either proponents or opponents from messing up with the story (perhaps by destroying evidence or using inappropriate political pull) before publication.
Of course, when you own the business,you can do things the way you wish. Several years ago, I decided that a transparent and balanced pre-review process would be a vital part of our publishing policy on contentious stories. The reasons:
We don’t have expensive libel insurance. If someone doesn’t like a story and there are factual errors, we could be tied up for years in business-killing litigation. (Think of Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media.)
The review process improves accuracy. In a recent application of the rule, I discovered I had made an embarrassing misspelling error. As well, one of the story’s proponents, thinking I was on-side, sent a mass of documents, including material that put the other side’s argument to a much better light — content I could safely use.
However, the latter point also proved the dilemma of the review process. In the case of this story, one side has been much more extensive in its responses. The other, a public agency, has been extremely careful and scripted, and contact has been through a media relations office. It took weeks to pry a simple statement from the public agency and only when the “other side” released a comprehensive letter from the agency to the other organization, could I really see that organization’s totally reasonable perspective of the situation.
I sent the revised version including the material from the public agency for a final review. The agency didn’t reply, but the other side fought back for an additional quote — essentially returning the “last word” in the story to their position. Personally, I think the story has again lost its balance, but I don’t see a practical way to restore it ethically.
While the story is public, I won’t publish a link because I’m alluding to a less-than-positive feeling about the organization which appears to be winning in the story, and since that is a negative comment about an individually identified business or organization, it must not be published here.
Yet there are important observations here that could be of value to you in shaping your relationships with the media and in obtaining publicity for your business.
I’m not criticising the public agency for its relatively limited and slow response. It must be careful and work through processes and channels, but its relatively limited access has skewered the story against its own valid narrative.
With the information I had on hand, the story’s proponent had the clear winning edge. Its leader provided detailed documentation and resources and much background data including documentary photos. Initially the other organization provided a brief, highly guarded statement. While I gave it “last word” it wasn’t credible enough to offset the narrative. Then, in another data dump, the proponent provided me with the “smoking gun” argument of its antagonist. I published it.
Documentary evidence has much weight, so do hard emails and written communication
Journalists find it easier to write and research from documentary material rather than first-person interviews, which require scheduling conversations and reviewing notes. It doesn’t hurt to provide this data — and the paradox of seeming to help the enemy with full disclosure can still in the end work to your favour because of the substantial material trust you achieve.
Of course, there is a final rule — one which doesn’t apply for me, but is vital in other media dealings. You can’t generally review or control what you say or provide once you give it to the journalist. The media have the last word. There is an art in being open, being available, providing necessary documentation, and still not giving away the store or allowing your inadvertent sloppy wording to become the headline.
Media relations and crisis media management training may indeed be worthy marketing investments. Take care.
If you have observations about this story, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment.