If there’s one trend that PR professionals, and those they serve, should keep top of mind in 2020 it’s that more than ever, PR can become part of the story.
The media microscope now often zooms in on how a company reacts to bad news. In recent months, we have experienced that in multiple ways. We’re asked by journalists to comment on situations where we’re not involved. We’ve also seen our counterparts analyze the actions of our clients in times of adversity. It’s now part of the deal.
Noteworthy is a new column from the Editor of the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia. It is unusual but apparently transparent. He informs the outlet’s readers on some behind-the-scenes goings on with its recent reporting, including how his team has interacted with executives and PR staff at Ford Motor Company.
Here’s what Bhatia writes about how Ford has handled the Free Press’ reporting of transmission trouble with certain car models:
“Ford fought the story.
It argued that the Free Press was exaggerating problems, at one point issuing a statement with an assertion contradicted in its own emails. It excluded (reporter Phoebe Wall) Howard from some events, and when she attended, assigned public relations staffers to remain at her side at all times while other journalists were allowed to move about freely. On one occasion, Ford staffers stood between her and Ford executives at a press event, apparently to prevent her from asking questions. On another occasion, Ford left Howard waiting in the lobby of world headquarters until minutes before a financial announcement while all other reporters had been seated and set up. A Ford staffer later apologized privately to Howard for the company’s treatment.
Sources set up special email accounts to correspond with Howard, telling her that their company communications were being monitored to spot contacts with her. A global communications staffer attacked us on social media. Ford insisted we were just doing the bidding of lawyers for car owners suing the company, when in fact we were consistently quoting from Ford’s own internal documents.
With each new disclosure, we gave Ford the opportunity to respond in detail before we published. That at times led to tensions between the company and us. In the end, we allowed Ford the time it wanted to comment, sometimes delaying publication for days, though company spokespeople argued it was not enough.
Howard continues to hear from distraught owners around the country — to date more than 400. Her final story of the year further documented their frustration. She also broke the news that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Ford’s conduct.”
We’re not taking sides. There’s certainly a Ford point of view to this too. If they write a letter to the editor for publication or otherwise communicate publicly about it, we’ll share it.
We encourage you to review this as evidence that PR is not the backroom business it perhaps once was. Our work can become more visible, and scrutinized, than ever. This can’t be just about providing written statements and hoping everyone moves on. Overall, that’s a good thing. This is all supposed to be about public relations, after all. If we want news organizations to be more open about their “sausage making,” then we’re going to have to be a part of that.