In response to Steve Pearlstein’s important column in the Washington Post proclaiming “the death of business reporting,” I have to say, as I know he would agree: I certainly hope not. Responsible business journalism plays an important role in informing the public and holding businesses accountable in the same way that political and policy journalism does for governments.
Steve’s balanced piece laments the extent to which companies no longer take seriously important inquiries from business journalists. He also notes that “the media are at least half responsible for the sorry state of corporate press relations” due to changes in the way business is covered.
The reasons for this are complex and well documented in Steve’s column and a fine response by Text100 CEO and Page Chair Aedhmar Hynes in PRWeek. Rather than rehash those reasons here, I will offer my views on what we (both corporate communicators and journalists) can do to strengthen and preserve our relationships and enhance the value of business journalism.
I begin with the notion that corporate communicators and business journalists share the goal of informing the public. It’s true that our perspectives are different and, to a degree, adversarial. That’s healthy. What’s become unhealthy is a lack of trust between us. We can fix that, but it will take a mutual commitment to do so.
Let’s start with communicators. Journalists are rightly skeptical. The corporate communicator’s duty is to advocate for a point of view. It’s also our duty to do so honorably and authentically, with a commitment to the truth. Not just failing to lie, but a commitment to the whole truth. Here are some things corporate communicators can do:
- Take legitimate press inquiries seriously. Some of us apparently have concluded that there’s too much risk in dealing with reporters, that our chances of influencing their predetermined narratives are slim, and that in the new digital commons we easily can reach our stakeholders directly through owned content and social media. This is a mistake. Despite their own credibility issues, legitimate media represent an important source of information for the public, and we foolishly abdicate our opportunity to ensure that coverage is fair and balanced if we fail to engage. In fact, we have a legitimate stake in preserving the health of responsible independent business journalism that helps the public understand the importance of the contribution that business makes to society.
- Develop trusting relationships with reporters and editors. This is more difficult than ever in an era when there are few regular beat reporters covering our enterprises. Some of the inquiries we receive are from reporters who don’t understand our company or even our sector and don’t have enough time to become knowledgeable. For all of us, though, we can identify the media outlets that are most important to us and reach out to responsible editors and reporters there to make sure they know us and show them that they can count on us to give them information they can trust.
- Make sure that we have seasoned media relations professionals on the case. Professional communicators with a journalism background are invaluable, but even those not trained as journalists can be taught to understand how reporters work and how to help them with their challenging job of understanding enterprises that are large, complicated and hard to penetrate.
Now, let’s turn to journalists. I’m a little reluctant to tell them what they should do, but having been one once and having worked with them throughout my career, developing relationships of mutual respect, I hope my advice will be received in the spirit that it is intended. The media can:
- Invest in business journalism. The old media model is under siege, with ads fleeing to illegitimate click-bait sites. (Corporate communicators can work with our marketing brethren to fight this trend.) But resourceful media outlets still can and must make a commitment to responsible business journalism that informs the public about important developments in the business sector.
- Respect the legitimate role of corporate communicators. At our best, corporate communicators are not “flacks” who slavishly parrot the company line and seek to obstruct your path to the truth, but rather professionals who understand and respect your role and deserve the same respect from you. Give us a chance to understand where you’re going with your story and to give you a larger context in which to understand what is really happening.
- Make sure you are truly listening. We understand that you are skeptical of what you hear from us, that you have outside sources that may have convinced you there is something amiss that you must investigate. But we are in a position to help deepen your reporting. If you are willing to listen to and understand what we have to say, you will produce a report that is more thorough and accurate.
In a world where trust has been eroded, it’s incumbent on all of us to respect each other’s perspectives and responsibilities. I suggest that we start with a dialogue that emphasizes our shared responsibilities and seeks to eliminate misunderstandings.