PR Foresight Was 20/20

Say you’re a company public relations manager witnessing your CEO’s interview with a major television network. And you felt it wasn’t going well. Would you tell the world about it? That’s what Metabolife International did after a two-hour interview with ABC News’ “20/20” newsmagazine.

In an unprecedented public relations gamble, Metabolife has posted its own video recording of an interview of CEO Michael Ellis by “20/20” reporter Arnold Diaz on the web at www.newsinterview.com. The case has all the elements that leave public relations professionals wide-eyed: Proactive crisis communications, the Internet and a major television network.

Metabolife claims it set up the site when it sensed ABC News would not be fair in presenting the story. To make sure people know about the site, Metabolife spent over one million dollars to promote it.

Of course, ABC News is hopping mad that the thunder was stolen from its story. The network spokespeople are warning against intimidation of their news programs and of distracting from the “editorial process.”

Frankly, we don’t see how posting the interview in its entirety takes away from ABC’s freedom to edit the interview into any segment they see fit. ABC producers are still free to boil down the interview – and others which they conducted with Metabolife’s main competitor – into an absorbing, ratings-seeking seven-minute story. If the story is fair, they have nothing (including their own credibility) to worry about.

Everyone Is Out to Get You, News At 11

When Emily was the media relations rep at UC Davis Medical Center, she assisted the producers at ABC’s PrimeTime Live program with a story about the high cost of trauma care. Specifically, the story focused on the high cost of intensive trauma care for one particular patient.

After a week of escorting the production crew, followed by a two-hour interrogation of the hospital’s director by none other than Sam “look-Ma-I’m-on-the-Internet” Donaldson, she sat down the night it aired and watched in horror as the story proceeded to skewer the hospital. Emily knew it was not going to be good when Sam introduced the story and then segued to the video with, “And just wait until you hear the hospital’s excuse!”

Never mind the meticulous research and detailed financial data she provided to the network for its own background. Never mind the “big picture” the CEO provided on the sorry state of health care in the United States. Never mind the three days of assisting the crew to ensure they had all the information they would need to produce a fair story – including information that was not always flattering to the hospital. Emily followed all the protocols in her philosophy of providing as much information as possible in order to assist the news media.

ABC instead focused on the tragic story of a young man who had been a patient and whose father now had a rather large medical bill for the intensive care he received. Emily wasn’t looking for a story that was necessarily sympathetic to the hospital, just a story that presented the broader issues that face most hospitals across the country. Instead, the producers took the easy way out (also called “the human side of the story”) and showed the stack of medical bills that had accumulated for the distraught father.

But Wait, There’s More!

How frustrating to see a couple weeks’ hard work turn into a ten minute hit piece! How great it would have been to feed the viewers the same information she’d given the network – unedited for their own reading and education.

Then came the web, possibly the most powerful tool for public relations professionals to reach the general public directly. Early on, we all rejoiced that we wouldn’t have to necessarily depend on the editorial whim of the news media. Instead, we could reach directly to the public with our story. But Metabolife may be the first company to really do it BIG.

While there may be a general distrust among the general public about the kind of information it gets directly from a company’s flacks, its attitude toward the news media may not be much better. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study says the American public is discontent with the news media (Feb. 1999). The report showed that the public, in growing numbers, considers the news media “immoral, unprofessional and uncaring.”

For true journalists, the profession is an important one. Journalism’s role is to look out for the interests of the public by giving it information in easily-digestible formats. Many reporters and news producers are fair and will present the broader story to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, many others already know the story they’re going to tell long before they start the interview process.

The same is true for public relations people. Many are dedicated communications professionals who want to ensure fair coverage for their clients or companies by giving the news media all the information it needs to write or produce a balanced story. Others are sleazy publicity hounds for whom the deplorable slur “spin” was created.

It seems the general public may feel it has nowhere to turn for a real scoop. But in this case, it can go directly to the uncut version of an interview to make its own assessment. Or it can wait for the pre-chewed version that is shorter and easier to swallow. Either way, it’s hard to understand how having more choices for information sources can possibly hurt journalism or “the search for the truth.”

If the news media are truly interested in having the public know all the facts, it should welcome this opportunity. For years, the news media lamented it could not present more information in stories because of the constraints of time on the air or space on a page. On the web, that’s not an issue. What a relief it must be for reporters now that they are not shackled to five column inches!

On the other hand, if public relations professionals want the public to believe their clients, they must be diligent in providing the most accurate information possible – which sometimes means admitting they’re wrong. The news media may be eroding the trust of the public, but public relations people shouldn’t get cocky about it. The road toward credibility is still uphill for us.

The rules of ethics apply to both professions.

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