By Rick Kelly
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse is correct – PennLive, the most dominant news source in his universe, “traffics in hate speech and cynicism,” to use the mayor’s words. He’s referring to the anonymous reader comments that accompany news articles, especially ones about him.
Similarly, presidential candidate Donald Trump is correct – the Washington Post, at or near the pinnacle of dominant news sources in his universe, published an unflattering, over-the-top headline for a story regarding Trump’s reaction to the mass shooting in Orlando.
What’s a politician to do? Papenfuse and Trump have announced they will no longer engage with reporters from PennLive and the Post, respectively. By “depriving” these news organizations of their points of view, they provide us with a good lesson in how not to deal with the news media.
Papenfuse and Trump either don’t understand or don’t care about an important fundamental fact: news media outlets are not your audience; they are a conduit to your audience.
We get why Papenfuse and Trump are ticked. Those of us who rushed headlong into journalism careers in the afterglow of the Watergate scandal tend to view anonymous reader comments as the First Amendment’s latrine. We cringe at the hateful daily diatribe that accompanies PennLive’s online content.
That content recently included articles regarding improper overtime pay practices at the mayor’s business, as well as his efforts to close down nuisance taverns located near property he owns. The level of snark in the ensuing anonymous reader comments was predictably high.
As for the Post, much of its presidential campaign coverage, especially the commentary, seems tinged with wishful thinking as it chronicles Trump’s intemperance and suggests he will crash and burn as the electorate finally awakens to the kind of president he would make.
So let’s review: Trump becomes the presumptive Republican nominee for President by being decidedly un-presidential, and when the Post portrays him as un-presidential, suddenly the Post is “phony and dishonest,” so he revokes the newspaper’s press credentials. Take that!
As Aristotle observed, nature abhors a vacuum. If you withhold your point of view from a news article because you don’t care for the conduit, you probably won’t like what’s there instead. “So-and-so refused to comment for this story” usually connotes that So-and-so either has thin skin or something to hide.
You’re better off to suck it up and recognize that you don’t get to decide what the news is, you don’t determine what’s fair, and you have no control over anonymous reader comments. What you can do is help see that your point of view gets to your audience by providing it to the conduit, regardless of your personal feelings about the conduit.
Which brings us to the “lessons learned” part of this rant. Most successful public figures rely on a trusted confidant to provide an ongoing reality check. It could be a savvy spouse or a longtime friend who has the interests of the public figure uppermost in his or her mind.
Often, it’s a capable and experienced public relations adviser who is empowered to say “That’s bull***t, boss” when the public figure is on the brink of acting out or making a stupid, insensitive or self-serving remark.
Regardless of who it is, the confidant should be well-versed not only on the message side of the equation, but in navigating across the myriad of communication channels in order to deliver your messages where they need to go. It’s even more important as technology transforms the ways we seek, receive and process content in the Digital Age.
Rick Kelly is VP of Strategic Communications and directs Triad’s crisis management practice. For more information, visit http://www.triadstrategies.com/strategic-communications/