It’s perhaps one of the longest running questions in public relations: How do you deal with a journalist who has an agenda? Some journalists do have agendas; columnists are paid to comment on the news and provide opinion, not just report the news. Even in traditional reporting, sometimes a personal agenda seeps into a story. Just as every public relations consultant has their own style, background, level of intelligence, gifts, resources, etc., so does every journalist. They’re all individuals, and that means trying to figure out a journalist’s thought process is as difficult. Nonetheless, I think I’ve come up with one solution to the “agenda problem” for public relations pros: plant a seed of doubt.
As I look back on my own time as a journalist, I’ve realized that when I was thrown off my agenda it was because someone planted a seed of doubt in my head. It wasn’t so much that they questioned my facts, but they questioned my reasoning by providing me with new or additional facts and spinning those facts to serve their own agenda.
The Seed of Doubt Theory won’t work with everyone, especially the crusty old hacks who have been covering the subject for decades and who have been tapping the same sources for years. Columnists aside, if you feel a reporter is coming to the table with an agenda, you need to be proactive about it. Do not accuse the reporter of having an agenda, but let them know you feel that their coverage has been lacking some clarity from your side of the story and ask how this can be rectified.
Of course, this won’t work with every journalist and that’s when you have to get creative. But first, consider how a reporter comes up with an agenda. I’m going to take two quick examples of how I “built” my agendas as a journalist.
The first one has to do with an individual company that I simply grew to hate. My hate was fostered by communications with the company’s own employees and this was clearly obvious by the stories I wrote about the company. Said company exacerbated matters by trying to stifle their employees, which just made me angrier. My agenda was blatantly obvious — I wanted the company punished — but the company’s public relations department, after a few months, finally figured out to get me off my agenda a bit: feed me information.
This leads to example two, which is the recent telecom regulations battle. I had a group of sources from one side of the story who constantly fed me accurate information. “Hey,” they said. “This guy knows what’s going on and if we give him good info, more often than not he’ll work to our advantage.” On the other side of the story, no one wanted to be a good source; they’d rather I just read their press releases and believe them. Only one side felt compelled to give me the level of access that I wanted and needed to accomplish my job. My agenda was sealed.
This is the most basic premise of an agenda — it’s all about information. Journalists with agendas need information to fuel that agenda. Otherwise, there’s no reason to constantly write about it. If someone is covering your company, trade association, organization, etc., and you feel they have an agenda, chances are, they’re getting their information from someone with an agenda of their own. The best way to battle this is to become a better source of information for the journalist.
Now, on a very basic level, if you feel a journalist or media organization that covers you has an agenda, you need to do everything you can to try to settle the situation. The best way to do this is to calmly make your feelings known to the individuals you feel have it out for you. If it’s an individual reporter, ask them to sit down with you and bring up your concerns. If they refuse to meet, or if it’s just that bad, tell the journalist you’d like to sit down with them and their editors to discuss the situation. And then contact the editors.
The important thing to remember is that most editors will stick by their reporters, so if you have to come to the table and not sound like a whiner. Don’t accuse anyone of having it out for you, just say that you feel your side of the story is not making it into the reporter’s coverage and you wanted to see if there was a way to rectify this. Bring with you a few articles that you feel display the reporter’s bias and suggest how, without changing the tone of the article, the piece could have been fair. If there is misinformation in the article, make this known.
It’s been my experience that agendas are often created due to a lack of communication between the journalist and the target of the agenda. Public relations pros have to be proactive about communicating with those who cover your company or clients on a regular basis and you have to be a good source of information to help keep your agenda in their mind and your opponent’s out of sight. You won’t be able to change everyone’s mind, but you’ll be able to get your agenda out there more often. And public relations is all about agendas.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (https://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.