When the cat’s already out of the bag …

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By Leo Valiquette

Back in the day when I worked as a business journalist and sparred with “those PR people” for a living, I did, on more than one occasion, run afoul of a source or a business that I was writing about.

This is simply par for the course. I’ve always said that a journalist isn’t keeping their foot on the gas if they don’t receive a demand letter from someone’s lawyer every now and again.

Sometime ago, Francis wrote about how the interview’s never over. But in these examples, it’s clear that missteps can easily occur even when both interviewer and interviewee agree that the microphone is still on.

What the neighbours say

Long before there were 50 shades of naughty ideas to be had, there was a lady in Ottawa who doled out sex and relationship advice. She decided to parlay her celebrity into a retail storefront, but soon ran afoul of her partners and investors. Literally overnight, the store was cleaned out and shut down without any public notice.

Since she was dodging local media, we went and spoke with neighbouring businesses to find out what we could. One such source characterized the sudden departure with the phrase, “Like thieves in the night.”

When that quote appeared in print, our sex counsellor-turned-entrepreneur took offense and cried defamation. A letter from her lawyer arrived shortly after demanding a retraction. Meanwhile, a statement of claim had been filed against her by a business partner-investor; anything contained in such a public legal document is fair game for the media to quote, provided it is attributed as the source.

Did she have grounds for her claim of defamation? I decided prudence was the better course and printed the requested retraction rather than allow the matter to escalate. But, I had that statement of claim in hand, which cast her in a far more negative light than an off-hand comment by one of her neighbours. What I did I do? I ran a followup story that quoted the statement of claim on the page facing the retraction.

What’s the moral of this story? When you have a crisis on your hands and the media are sniffing around, you have to say something, even if it is only a short written statement issued by email or newswire. You can’t control who the media will speak with, or what they will write, but you certainly can make sure your position is also in the public domain.

But that was off the record!

This one is like trying to pick between the blue wire and the red wire to defuse a time bomb, only to discover that it was the green wire all along. If you are not comfortable with seeing it in print, DO NOT say it to a journalist. End of story.

In this case, I was speaking with the CEO of a B.C.-based company with local operations about job cuts at his organization. Our interview reached a point where he said, “now, off the record …” I marked that point clearly in my notes.

The part where he said he was going to completely shut down his B.C. operation and consolidate in Ottawa was, according to my notes, on the record. However, once that story was published he, for lack of a better term, freaked out and claimed I was wrong. Not only did he want a retraction, he wanted us to lie and state there was no such consolidation plan underway so he could keep the wool pulled over his employees’ eyes for a few more weeks.

We stood by the story. No demand letter arrived this time because it was the truth.

Again, you can’t get burned if you don’t play with fire. If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it. Going on and off the record in the same interview is seldom worth the risk. It’s not necessarily because the journalist is trying to trick you, but it’s too easy for innocent misunderstandings to occur.

The battle to break news

This was another one where I was speaking with a CEO about impending cutbacks at his organization. Acting on an anonymous tip, I got in touch with him on a Friday and he admitted to me that big changes were coming, but he was reluctant to discuss the full details till later in the following week, once the announcements had been made internally.

By Monday morning, however, another larger news outlet, quoting its own “sources close to the situation,” had broke the story.

Now this is one where I admit my own zeal not to outdone soured the situation. When I couldn’t immediately get in touch with the CEO again on Monday morning, I went ahead and wrote my own story that included the comments he had provided to me on the Friday. I earned myself a place on his blacklist for that one, but story was already out before my piece was published.

The lesson here, again, is to put as much of a lid as you can on rumor and speculation when news that you don’t want to get out already has. Again, it could be as simple as a one-paragraph written statement. Journalists are under often extreme pressure to break news and few can afford to allow a rival media outlet get the scoop on them. That’s just the way it is.

To recap, don’t say anything you don’t want the world to know, and when the world already knows, you have to say something.

Image: Pharma Marketing Blog

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