My essay on how to deal with media coverage that unfairly paints you or your client as a big, bad Goliath was published today at Ragan Communications’ PR Daily. Here’s the link and I have also posted it below:

Who doesn’t love an underdog story?

“Rocky” and “Rudy” are examples of movies that exploit this natural human desire to root for the long shot, the small fry, those “Davids” throughout the universe who dare to battle a Goliath looming menacingly over them.

Because of this natural desire to paint matters with a “David vs. Goliath” brush, there are inevitably going to be those occasions when the facts of a situation are cherry-picked to fit the archetype. It won’t be fair, and that’s especially so for those who are unfairly assigned the Team Goliath label.

Over the course of my 15 years in public relations and media relations, there have been times when my clients have borne the brunt of biased and lazy narratives. This tends to occur when journalists come up short in securing essential facts and relevant data. Fast-paced news cycles are partly to blame, as are other factors that include a general media instinct to advocate for those have been historically disenfranchised and abused.

That protective “watchdog” function was one of the qualities that I embraced during my 20-plus years as a journalist. It’s a noble and important part of the job. However, the downside of this pursuit is that it can cause a reporter to dismiss, diminish or otherwise disregard information that does not align with the David vs. Goliath theme.

Unfortunately, the publication, broadcast or online posting of each new story adds a log to the David vs. Goliath fire. There is much too much “copycat journalism” out there, especially as speed-to-social media posting usurps substantive, objective reporting. The experience has prompted me to go beyond the necessarily reactive mode (trying to put out fires caused by the latest story) to one that is proactive.

For any publicist who encounters this type of saga, here are steps to consider as you pivot toward a more assertive—almost aggressive—tact with the next reporter who touches base and announces they are working on a (pile-on) story.

Appeal to the reporter’s duty to conduct original reporting

With resources strained at most every media outlet, it’s inevitable that reporters will travel the path of least resistance to get up to speed when assigned something entirely new to them. One of their first steps will be to read or watch other media accounts—and especially any stories from colleagues at their own outlet.   Alas, this is where problems can arise, when embedded bias is passed on, like a stubborn piece of DNA, from one generation of a story to the next.

Point out the flaws in prior reporting and challenge the reporter to avoid those pitfalls

Arm the would-be reporter with facts that refute, or at least severely dilute, the prevailing storyline. Essentially, you put them on notice that anything they produce can’t be something they simply phone in by mimicking prior coverage.

In my dealings with the media, it’s a significant help that I can draw upon my nearly quarter-century of reporting, complete with the good, the bad and the ugly pieces of the process. As a result, I am well attuned to the journalist’s mindset—and can call out the bad and ugly parts from my own experience.  What can a reporter say when I acknowledge that I have committed the sins that I am preaching against? Far from taking a “holier than thou” posture, I try to come alongside the reporter to emphasize how much I understand their inclination to take a short-cut or to view matters from a preconceived lens.  It’s all linked to human nature, so there is no need to have much, or even any, journalism background to convey that you understand these realities. Be sure to communicate with an understanding, not condemning, tone. 

Communicate with a high level of transparency

Extend an invitation to tour your headquarters or office or whatever setting applies to the situation. When it might be relevant, challenge the reporter to put your product or service in context.  How do other widgets on the market compare, based on price, quality, track record, and so forth? Are there industry standards that you can point to, as well as reliable data points that help flesh out the context more fully?

Be proactive, responsive, and accessible

For the reporter, this all adds up to more work, and a more complex story that is far more challenging to create than an overly simplistic David vs. Goliath tale. Even quality reporters succumb to the temptation to go for the easy and simple (if unfair) take, rather than go through the struggle of telling one that is nuanced.  Against that backdrop, being proactive, responsive and accessible are vital. Anticipate questions that might arise, suggest angles that have not previously been explored, respond swiftly when they reach out, and provide access to key sources whenever possible.  By no means is this a four-step, sure-fire holistic prescription. Each situation has its own variables. But the next time you find yourself needing to turn the tide toward a more balanced, accurate depiction of your unfairly cast Goliath, one or more of these steps could well prove instrumental in tilling the soil for fair, original reporting.

Related Posts:
David vs. Goliath: from Gladwell’s Book to Cultivating Main Street PR Prospects
Zurich Insurance at 100 Years & Its Marketing Lesson in Historical Context

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