When I was a young whippersnapper of a managing supervisor at a global PR firm, I landed a whale of a new client. It wasn’t totally fair. The president of the organization was a good friend of mine—someone I worked with before I graduated from college. He just happened to get a job running this organization, and they needed a PR firm.
It’s all about who you know, and suddenly, I was a 27-year-old employee who landed a multi-million dollar account for the agency. Because of that, I was granted access to account work I wouldn’t normally have done at that age—and wasn’t experienced enough yet to handle. But I did get to work with some of the agency’s most experienced professionals from several of their offices, including New York City.
About a year into the relationship, we had been pitching 60 Minutes to do a profile on the organization. It was highly revered and the story was perfect for one of their segments. In the months leading up to the three-day visit with the famed TV team, we spent days and days and days preparing the client’s team for the visit. A media trainer from the New York office was brought in to work individually with the president.
They were ready for the visit.
There was just one thing we wanted to be sure was not discussed during the interview—and there was a lot of time preparing the team to “block and bridge” that question should it come up.
60 Minutes arrived and they spent three days with the client—touring their production facilities, talking to employees and managers, and spending time with the president of the organization. It went swimmingly well. So well, we celebrated at the end of the second night—something I know now to never do because we jinxed it.
The third day went well, too, and we were incredibly happy with all of the prep work we had done because the client performed extraordinarily well.
The talent left to fly home and the production team was taking down all of their equipment when the client said, “I’m so glad you didn’t ask me about…” and then he mentioned the one thing we didn’t want him to discuss.
The production team kept the tape rolling, which ended up being what the entire 60 Minutes segment was about. They left the previous three days’ work on the cutting room floor. To this day, it hurts my heart to even think about. And yet, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.
Granting Media Access Can Be Dangerous
I was reminded of my client’s story when I read Seth Arenstein’s article about the CNN debacle in CommPro. One of the things he focuses on is why (whyyyyy?) Tim Alberta of The Atlantic was given months-long access to the CNN chief during the first few months of his tenure.
It’s certainly easy to sit here and armchair quarterback and hindsight is 20/20 and every other cliche I can think of, but the truth is, this was not a calculated risk. It was just dumb. Certainly, we don’t know what went on, and Seth goes so far as to say he thinks this was the doing of Chris Licht and not his comms team, but still not a smart decision…as we all learned when Alberta’s article was published.
It eviscerated the CNN chief and led to his ultimate demise five days after publication. Licht was only in the job for five months when Alberta was granted access. And not just access but extensive access that lasted about eight months. Early in my career, I learned that three days’ media access is an eternity. Nearly a year with untethered media access is a loooong time.
As Seth says in his article, “If access is risky, extensive access is like driving 180 mph at night without headlights.”
The analogy perfectly captures the potential danger and lack of foresight in granting such unfettered media access.
It’s crucial for organizations to understand the risks associated with granting access to journalists or other individuals who may have a vested interest in portraying a particular narrative. While allowing Alberta access may have been intended to provide an inside look and foster transparency, the outcome was disastrous. The article exposed vulnerabilities and flaws within the CNN leadership—particularly Licht—severely damaging their reputation.
I talked to Seth about his article, and he said, “Alberta could have written three or four stories based on the egregious things Licht said to him. It could have been a blockbuster series.”
This incident serves as a stark reminder that organizations must carefully evaluate the potential consequences of granting extensive media access.
This Is a Cautionary Tale
Just like the 60 Minutes opportunity for our client, there are numerous instances in which you find yourself excited about pitching a story or when a reporter requests access. It’s only natural to feel a surge of anticipation and recognize the potential career-definer such a feature in a prominent media outlet can have—or, at the very least, consider it a pinnacle achievement.
However, weighing the benefits against the risks is crucial in every situation. This is the time to explore alternative approaches and strategies. In the case of CNN and Tim Alberta, could they have granted him access to Chris Licht, but limited the duration to a week instead of five months? Could they have exercised more control during the interviews to ensure Licht didn’t inadvertently reveal anything egregious or bombshell-worthy while still maintaining transparency and minimizing the potential for reputational harm?
Organizations must also ensure that decision-making processes regarding media access involve a comprehensive evaluation from multiple perspectives. It is not solely the responsibility of the communications team but should also involve key stakeholders, including senior leadership and legal counsel. Adopting a collaborative approach significantly reduces the likelihood of ill-advised decisions that can have far-reaching consequences.
The CNN debacle serves as a cautionary tale for all organizations and communicators. It reminds us of the delicate balance between transparency and risk management. While granting media access can be an invaluable tool, doing so without implementing proper precautions is, like Arenstein said, akin to embarking on a reckless high-speed drive in the dark.
It is imperative to learn from these missteps and embrace more strategic and thoughtful approaches to media engagement in order to safeguard an organization’s reputation and integrity.
Here are a few key considerations to guide organizations in their decision-making processes:
Assess the Potential Risks
Before granting extensive media access, carefully evaluate the potential risks involved. Consider the likelihood of sensitive information being revealed, the effect on key stakeholders, and the potential damage to the organization’s reputation.
By identifying and understanding the risks, you can make informed decisions.
Define the Scope and Duration
When granting media access, establish clear guidelines regarding the scope and duration of the engagement. Determine the boundaries within which the journalist can operate and specify any off-limits topics or areas.
This helps maintain control over the narrative and reduces the chances of unintended consequences.
Implement Interview Controls
During interviews, employ measures to ensure that the spokesperson remains on message and avoids making statements that could be damaging or misinterpreted.
Provide media training and guidelines to help the spokesperson navigate sensitive topics and communicate effectively while maintaining transparency. And, even when the spokesperson is media trained—or is a media expert like Licht—spend time rehearsing what could go wrong.
Involve Key Stakeholders
Including senior leadership and legal counsel in the decision-making is vital. Their insights and perspectives can help identify potential legal implications, reputational risks, and strategic considerations. You can make more well-rounded decisions by engaging a diverse range of viewpoints.
Learn from Past Experiences
Conduct thorough post-mortem analyses of previous media engagements to identify areas for improvement. Assess what worked well and what could have been handled differently. Use these insights to refine your media engagement strategies and enhance risk management practices.
If you’ve never had the experience of a big media piece like this, ask the Spin Sucks Community for help. Many of us have had experiences throughout our careers where we can advise you about risks, pitfalls, and challenges.
Leverage Media Access to Enhance Your Reputation
By adopting these approaches, organizations can strike a balance between transparency and risk management. They can leverage media opportunities to enhance their reputation and achieve their communication objectives while minimizing potential pitfalls.
The CNN debacle underscores the importance of thoughtful decision-making and the need for strategic media engagement practices. Organizations that embrace these lessons will be better equipped to navigate the evolving media landscape while safeguarding their reputation and integrity.