The potentially tricky but co-dependent relationship between PRs and media has long been the source of debate within the industry – with the issue rearing its head earlier this month as another PR ‘punch-up’ spills into the national news.

This time the media outlet is FT, with global tech giant HP in the spotlight for its handling of a piece of editorial it took exception to.

Journo Lucy Kellaway inadvertently upset HP’s chief marketing officer with an article containing critical comments about CEO Meg Whitman. Choosing to share his disappointment with the content, Henry Gomez signed off his complaint with: “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”

Rather than quaking at the prospect of HP withdrawing its advertising budget from the title, Kellaway penned a well-crafted and public response to Henry Gomez, which she describes as “liberating [and] aggressive. He was aggressive to me. I’m returning the favour.”

In it Kellaway tells Gomez he has damaged HP’s relationship with the media, and that, if his decision to advertise in FT was the right one, it would be “crazy to change course based on pique”.

This is by no means the first attempt by a global player to leverage ad spend to stifle unfavourable editorial coverage.

In fact, respected political commentator Peter Oborne cited pressure on editorial staff to bow to the whims of advertisers as one of the reasons behind his resignation from The Telegraph. In an article on OpenDemocracy he wrote that: “The coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

With PR-media relationships under the microscope, the adage that PRs should be behind the headlines rather than in them is never more true.

Our top tips for negotiating similarly stormy waters are:

  1. Don’t make threats. The potential fall out is quite clearly identified above. It’s an ill-advised strategy to propose that advertising budget will be pulled and as PRs, we should support the premise of a free press, who have a responsibility to write the facts in an unbiased and objective manner. If you’re inclined to not offer exclusives to that journalist in future, or neglect to invite them to the next launch event, that’s your call. But threatening action as a lever will likely meet with an unfavourable response.
  2. Don’t make it personal – but address the facts. It’s absolutely acceptable to point out inaccuracies in coverage, in fact, that’s the job of a PR. And a decent journalist will (perhaps begrudgingly) appreciate genuine corrections being flagged. Don’t be afraid to request that errors are addressed, if the issue warrants it.
  3. Consider the interests of your client, and also the media outlet. Being unreasonable and making unrealistic demands is a sure fire route to impacting how favourably the journalist treats your news for years to come. Charm is the mainstay of PR types, right? Those skills will come in handy here.
  4. Take a balanced view. While PRs work hard to protect the reputation of our clients, it’s crucial amid a potential issue to be a respected third party with a measured approach, which will work for your client’s benefit and may help reach a compromise that suits all parties. Drama queens not required.
  5. Think long term. It’s always better to build bridges than burn them, be that with journalists, suppliers, customers or other stakeholders. A long term view will help provide some perspective on a situation.

At The Tonic, we have extensive experience in media relations. With former journalists as part of our team, we respect the difference between advertising and editorial. To find out more about our services including media relations, media training and stakeholder engagement, please get in touch with our team.