How to make a PR professional uncomfortable

Are facts merely pieces of information, to be played like chess pieces, when we feel they are to our advantage? Or should the truth be our moral compass, guiding our moves, regardless of the consequences? In public relations, it’s often much easier to talk about the truth than tell it.

The Challenge

The challenge for public relations professionals – in particular for media relations – is that they sit between smart, inquisitive minds seeking honest answers, and clients that are usually very particular about the way they want their version of the facts presented in public. While there is middle-ground, it is the clients that pay the fees, not the reporters. So the challenge for the PR is to get as close to the varnished truth as possible without discrediting themselves or their client with the reporter. That’s not so easy.

Here’s why. A reporter’s life is hard work, especially today, although it can be incredibly rewarding in terms of satisfaction — less so in financial terms. As the motivation of a reporter is to write strong, unique stories that people read, they are de facto always looking for an angle. That’s one reason why press releases are such blunt instruments. I digress. In seeking a different approach, reporters are seeking the unvarnished truth, the “diamond in the rough”. That is their job.

Unfortunately, most companies have information that they don’t want to be released into the public domain, or at the very least, they want to control the timing. So control is at the heart of the PR professional’s role. Reporters don’t like this. So a good PR pro will give context to much of what they say, wrap information into a broader theme, one they hope is compelling to the writer. Less of a sales pitch; more of a genuine industry story.

The real issue comes when reporters ask very specific questions, to which there is no easy middle ground. They demand facts for answers. It is then that the PR professional and their client are held to a higher standard of transparency. It is in these moments that the agency earns their fees, for often to not answer a question, or to fluff the answer, simply lacks credibility. But to tell the absolute truth often verges on the untenable.

The Solution

So as all good reporters dig deep and ask specific questions to mine the truth, or at least find where the rich seam of interest lies, the closer they get to client sensitivities, the greatest temptation to shade the truth or outright lie for PR pros. This must be avoided at all costs.

Telling the truth is not a moral position; it is a pragmatic one. If your business is working with the media, you cannot develop a reputation of bending the truth too much; otherwise, you won’t be trusted. If you can’t be trusted, you lose influence. Without influence, your value plummets. You take the choice.

There is, of course, another option: fire the client. While dismissing a client isn’t the most obvious or attractive option for most PR agencies, it is can be necessary. After all, most businesses can survive losing one client; but can they tolerate a loss of credibility? Ultimately, reputation matters.

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