Non-profit’s Response to Negative Article Is Model for Ad Agency PR

 “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” – Proverbs 18:17

Let me state up front that I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the facts related to the PR issue I’m about to discuss, so I don’t know which party is right and which is wrong—or whether the truth lies somewhere in between.

What I can say is that Soles4Souls’ response to a negative front-page story about it in The Tennessean newspaper, which was also picked up by USA Today, is a model for how to fight back when you feel you’ve been unfairly portrayed in the news media.

Soles4Souls is a non-profit charitable organization. According to its mission statement, “Soles4Souls collects new shoes to give relief to the victims of abject suffering and collects used shoes to support micro-business efforts to eradicate poverty.”

While the details are too involved to go into here, The Tennessean article makes Soles4Souls appear deceptive in some of its practices. “Millions of pairs of used shoes donated to Soles4Souls…don’t go directly to the impoverished people the charity says it is helping,” the paper states.

Soles4Souls’ statement about the article, which is posted on the non-profit’s Web site, was thorough, factual and measured, with a minimum of emotion or defensiveness attached to it.

Here’s a sample from Soles4Soul’s response:

•       “The gist of the [Tennessean] micro-enterprise article is that Soles4Souls has not talked openly about its micro-enterprise program.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are proud of our micro-enterprise efforts, which have enabled us to increase the number of people we serve and is consistent with social enterprise undertaken by the US government and [the] nation’s leading nonprofits.   In 2009, we discussed the program in an article published by The Tennessean! Although the article no longer appears on The Tennessean’s website, you can read it here on our site where it has been since it was published.”

Hmmm, I wonder why that 2009 article is no longer available on The Tennessean’s Web site, especially in light of the extensive story the paper did questioning this non-profit’s integrity?

There’s a good lesson in all this: When it was caught off guard by accusations about its practices, Soles4Souls didn’t panic, nor did it roll over and play dead. It took the paper’s accusations head-on, set the record straight and raised questions of its own about The Tennessean’s ethics in the way it handled the matter.

The Internet and social media have opened up effective new ways of fighting back and telling the other side if your organization or client is misrepresented.

You owe it to your stakeholders to tell the truth, admit to mistakes on your part (if applicable) and correct reporting errors. Stakeholders can be valuable goodwill ambassadors to help you set the record straight IF they know the facts.

And never, ever be afraid to take on the news media if they get out of line. Accountability, after all, is a two-way street.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Ad Agencies Beware of Speaking with Reporters off the Record

Brian Lewis, a former reporter for The Tennessean newspaper, described in a column the different levels of speaking with reporters:

Off the record:  “To have an off-the-record conversation means that the information will not be used in any way in a story.  Many editors, including mine, don’t allow reporters to have off-the-record conversations.”

On background:  “To have an on-background conversation means that the information may be used in a story, but the person who is talking will not be named in connection with the information that is ‘on background.’”

On the record:  “This is the standard conversation with reporters.  However, reporters should identify themselves as working on an article before beginning an interview…once a statement has been made on the record, it cannot be taken off-record.”

While Brian’s explanation of these three levels is helpful, my advice to ad agencies is to never speak off the record, unless you really know and trust the reporter.

Even then, there are risks.

Consider this headline from a story by the New York Times News Service:  “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”  The subhead reads:  “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

I wonder how the career of that military strategist is going these days. He certainly should have known better than to make such a remark to a reporter, and I suspect he learned his lesson after getting burned so badly by someone he apparently trusted.

What’s even more disturbing than this official’s lack of judgment, though, is that The New York Times  had no qualms about using something he told one of its reporters in confidence and clearly thought was off the record. 

The paper’s subhead admits it can’t be trusted, which is why if you don’t want to risk having something appear in print or on radio, TV or the Internet, don’t share it with a reporter!

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Getting the Story Right

Deborah Fisher, senior editor for news at The Tennessean, wrote a column in last Sunday’s edition about the paper’s policy for using anonymous sources and its commitment to accurate reporting.

“The most important factor for us in using an anonymous source is that the information given us by the source is true.” At first glance that seems like a “duh” statement for a news editor to make.

Unfortunately, getting a story right rather than just getting a story is not always a priority for some media outlets these days.

Sloppy reporting, lack of accountability and pressure to be first to break a story are all contributing factors in the decline of journalism.

“It’s too easy for people to hide behind anonymity, planting information with no accountability,” Ms. Fisher continues. “And when you’re not accountable, isn’t it easier to stretch the truth?”

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope some of Ms. Fisher’s colleagues at other news media outlets read her column and take it to heart.

Recently I became aware of one of our local TV stations carrying a report alleging a businessman had lost a $1 million judgment. I know the man and when I asked him about the report, he said a lawsuit had been filed but no judgment was rendered. In fact, the case hasn’t even been to court yet.

It turns out the TV station got its information from a less-than-credible source. Even worse, all the reporter who covered the story needed to do was call the court to verify the information and he would have found out it wasn’t true, but he didn’t bother.

Apparently, truth and the businessman’s reputation were less important to him than getting the story on air that evening. Soon, the false report was picked up by other media outlets that likewise didn’t bother to check out the facts.

The Tennessean’s Williamson AM section reported the man was being held in the county jail, which also was not true.

No wonder so many people don’t trust the news media these days. And no wonder Ms. Fisher felt it necessary to state what should be obvious: that truth is the most important factor in any news story.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

P.R. Agency Finds Itself in Paper’s Crosshairs

It’s always interesting to see how PR principals handle criticism of their firm. Usually, it’s their clients that are under fire, but on occasion the news media will turn a critical eye toward the PR firm itself. Such was the case Sunday when The Tennessean ran a front-page story on the main section titled “How a P.R. firm to (sic) powerful tarnished its image.”

It’s hard to know how much of this negative story was due to Editor Mark Silverman still smarting from prior suggestions that the firm coaxed favorable coverage about the civic center from The Tennessean, or whether the paper really thought this story deserved such prominent coverage. Maybe it was a combination of both.

The firm, McNeely Pigott & Fox, is the largest PR firm in Tennessee, and it has represented some prominent Democratic leaders, including Karl Dean, Nashville’s current mayor. The major point of contention was the amount the agency billed the city to promote a proposed downtown convention center. The firm ended up resigning the account.

“…the firm hired to help temper criticism wound up fueling it with an open-ended contract that sent a whopping $458,000 bill to the city in just over a year,” The Tennessean reported. “It was a stunning fall that has raised questions about the entire convention center project, Mayor Karl Dean’s oversight of it, and his close association with the P.R. firm that helped get him elected….”

Well, I have to agree that sounds like a lot of money, and I’d be happy to promote the convention center for a lot less. In fairness to McNeely Pigott & Fox, it’s not clear the extent of work the agency did for those fees and how much time its staff spent on the project. But, whenever you get into large amounts of money going out of government to a firm with significant connections to many of the key players, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows.

Dealing with the perception of having taken advantage of the city through cozy connections is, in my view, the biggest challenge McNeely Pigott & Fox faces.

How effectively it will counter this criticism and weather the storm remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that The Tennessean article disclosed the firm worked with the paper in 2007. No word on what McNeely Pigott & Fox charged the paper for its services, and whether The Tennessean was happy with its work.

I can’t help but wonder if the firm had a crisis management plan in case something like this happened (the article said, “They never saw this crisis coming…”), and if so how well it’s working for them now?

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Can Ad Agencies Buy Favorable Media Coverage?

In my previous post, I referenced a column by Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman in which he wrote, “Our stories and opinion columns cannot be bought.”

Is Mr. Silverman correct or is that just wishful thinking? Can reporters really be paid to write favorable stories? Since presumably they would be paid under the table, how would he know?

If people in other professions can be bribed, why not those in the news media? Codes of ethics get broken all the time.

It seems to me the better way for Mr. Silverman to have made his point would have been to say that the paper has a policy prohibiting stories and opinion columns from being bought, and they work very hard to enforce it.

Because the truth is, he can’t state with absolute certainty that none of his reporters has ever quietly taken cash or gifts to tone down or slant a story.

Having said that, in my 25 years in journalism, agency and corporate PR, I’ve never seen it happen, nor have I ever gotten so much as a hint from a reporter that he or she would “adjust” a story for certain inducements. I’m not saying it never happens, just that I’ve never experienced this as a journalist or as a public relations professional.

Many years ago, while working for a large PR agency, I was involved in a retail promotion that drew huge crowds into a client’s store. The store was part of a national chain that previously had relied exclusively on advertising.

Our PR team found several angles that were of interest to the news media, and we were successful in generating a lot of publicity for the store, which resulted in the large turn out. In addition to the pre-event coverage, we had several reporters onsite.

I’ll never forget when one of the chain’s VPs asked me how much we paid the reporters to show up. I politely explained that we didn’t pay them anything, nor would they have taken our money if we had offered. The reason the reporters were there was because we had been successful in communicating to them that this was a good story worthy of their time.

That’s the way I believe it works with the vast majority of reporters. There are legitimate reasons to be critical of the way some news media outlets operate, but taking “cash for coverage” is not one of them.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Paper Opens Its Doors to Readers

A Nashville TV station’s recent report about high fees a PR firm charged the city for its attempts to obtain favorable publicity for a planned new convention center evidently touched a nerve with Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman.

In a column titled “Tennessean coverage isn’t for sale,” Mr. Silverman noted that the TV report and subsequent comments on blogs “suggested that the firm coaxed favorable coverage about the civic center from The Tennessean; some bloggers and story chat participants even suggested that a Tennessean staffer was paid to write positive reports. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our stories and opinion columns cannot be bought.”

I’ll have more to say about paying reporters for favorable coverage in my next post, but for now I’m going to focus on another aspect of his column.

Mr. Silverman went on to explain how his paper works with PR firms and its commitment to ethics. He also described the lengths the paper went to in raising questions and digging for facts related to the convention center proposal. You can read his full column here: http://tennessean.com/article/20090809/COLUMNIST0113/908090331/1748

What especially caught my eye was the last paragraph, where he made an offer I wish more newspaper editors would make to their readers: Anyone interested in seeing how news decisions are made is welcome to attend a news meeting. All a person has to do is e-mail him to make arrangements.

I hope there are many who take him up on his offer, which he says he’s made before, because it would be an enlightening experience for those not familiar with this process. Reporters likely will be on their best behavior with outsiders observing them, but seeing how stories are chosen and what factors play into the news-selection process can only help strengthen relationships with the paper’s readers.

I applaud Mr. Silverman for his openness and his efforts to educate readers. Sounds like something a PR person might come up, doesn’t it?

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Careless Newspaper Burns Ad Agency

Earlier today I received a phone call from David Jacobs, senior vice president and director of interactive at The Tombras Group. He called in response to my recent post about a spacing error and typo in a full-page ad announcing the agency had earned top honors at the national 2009 ADDY Awards Show. What he shared was interesting and disturbing.

The ad, which only ran in The Tennessean, was initiated by the paper to congratulate The Tombras Group on its award. According to David, The Tennessean sent the agency a suggested ad that contained typos. The Tombras Group corrected the typos, including the spacing error and misspelling of “mountain,” and sent the revised copy back to the paper.

David and his colleagues were expecting The Tennessean to send a copy of the corrected version back for approval, but the next thing they knew the ad was in the paper’s Sunday edition.

These errors not only reflect poorly on the agency, but also unfairly diminish its achievement. This is a real injustice to The Tombras Group, and I hope The Tennessean will do the right thing by publicly acknowledging its errors.

Of course, if someone from The Tennessean has additional information to share about this or another perspective, I invite that person to either comment on this post or get in touch with me. If someone from the paper does contact me, I’ll report the results here.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.