Trump’s media tantrum – what it means for communications teams and PR companies

Donald Trump’s unhappy relationship with the media went from bad to worse this weekend. Last week the White House banned a number of media outlets including New York Times, the BBC, CNN and the Guardian from press briefings and over the weekend the president announced that he will break with tradition by not attending this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

He made the announcement in a Tweet, which ended “have a great evening!” but which gave no reason for his decision not to attend – not that we needed one. Over the last week or so Mr Trump has called the media “the enemy of the American people,” while his senior advisor Steve Bannon has described them as “the opposition party.”

Over on this side of the Atlantic, shadow cabinet member Shami Chakrabarti complained on the Andrew Marr show that “Sometimes [the Labour Party] haven’t had the fairest or most balanced treatment in the media, including in the broadcast media.”

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Politicians are not the only ones who experience difficult relations with the media. So what should those involved in media relations as well as Comms teams and PR companies do when they feel that they’ve been unfairly treated by journalists?

When I deliver media training courses participants and their PR advisors, with whom I work closely sometimes complain of unfair treatment by a particular journalist or media outlet. This prompts two questions: why has this happened and what are we going to do about it?

However, I often pre-empt this discussion with another question: are you sure that you’re being treated unfairly? Quite often the coverage might not be to their liking and might even be negative in its tone but looking at it objectively and as a seasoned hack I can show them that it’s actually quite reasonable. (In some cases PR companies and media relations people are quite often relieved to hear me convince a client or board member of this unwelcome fact.)

Why do journalists sometimes treat companies unfairly?

In other situations, it’s clear that a journalist has been unreasonable. So, what can you do if a journalist misreports you or is unfair to you?

When I was in the BushQuayle ’88 media team and then in the press office at Conservative Central office we had our friends and enemies in the media. But we prided ourselves on treating even the most hostile media with courtesy and respect. At CCO if a journalist from the Mirror, the Guardian or the Independent rang up we’d answer their questions and provide them with information if their request was reasonable.

Organisations need to do this too. Yes, I know, I know. If a journalist has written offensive rubbish or misrepresented you in a report the last thing you feel like doing when they ring up the next day is to help them. Of course, you’d much prefer to slam the phone down. However, shutting off communication will only antagonise them further and give them license to represent you as unhelpful, hostile and secretive. Journalists actually like knowing that they’ve provoked someone or some organisation in this way.

Journalists like annoying people – it’s fun!

When I was on the other side of the media hedge and reporting for The Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and other newspapers it was made to me clear that attacking organisations and annoying famous and powerful people was absolutely OK. If anything it was positively encouraged – as long as you could stand up your story and prove that you’d got your facts right.

So, remember that this is what journalists love and try not to let it wind you up. As well as keeping the lines of communication open you should also be proactive and make an effort to reach out to the journalist or the outlet. Offer to meet for coffee or lunch and get to know more about them and their publication – including the commercial element of their operation as this often influences their coverage and editorial stance.

On the other hand, if a journalist has said something that is simply untrue then do correct them. Be polite and calm but firm. Journalists genuinely don’t want to get their facts wrong. Suggesting that you’re helping them with accuracy is better than confronting them. One of the benefits of the Internet is that it’s a matter of a few clicks to correct the figure for turnover, the name of a client or the date of an event such as the founding of an organisation, of example.

What do about unfair media reporting

Sometimes there’s a particular reason for negative coverage. During one political campaign I worked on the main local paper was immediately “anti” my candidate. When I talked to the principal reporter and the editor it turned out that this was because we weren’t using their printing presses for our leaflets. The fact that if we had employed them as printer this might be seen to compromise their political independence was clearly not a problem for them – or it was less important that the revenue in question (which wasn’t a great amount).

As well as focussing on the troublesome media you can also use more friendly media to get across your story. Competition between the publications and TV news programmes means that we love to trash each other’s stories. If one newspaper or website has published something that you don’t believe is really a fair reflection of the situation then offering a competitor an exclusive interview or previously unknown set of facts can help to diminish the authority of the first piece.

Whatever your problem with a particular media outlet the most important thing to remember is to remain calm about it and to put it into context. Correcting factual errors is important but equally important is rising above jibes and provocative commentary.

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Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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