There’s a famous quote uttered by Mark Twain from back in the days when newspapers wielded tremendous power: “Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.”
As someone who started out as a newspaper journalist, that just seems like common sense to me. Generally, the people who ignore that advice are politicians. They pick fights with newspapers all the time and can’t figure out why they receive bad press and why every misstep is greeted with such glee by editorial writers. The smartest politicians realize that the news cycle is fast, and if they ignore the bad press, it’s soon replaced and gone.
The politicians particularly reviled by me and my reporter cohorts were the ones who were not smart. They wanted to rewrite history. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. There was one local mayor back in the day who often claimed that he had been misquoted. Even when presented with recordings of his remarks, he would deny it and would do his best to eviscerate the unfortunate reporter who wrote the article. He would call on higher powers – managing editors and publishers – and demand retractions of the truth.
After leaving the newspaper business for business-to-business journalism, I’ve experienced very little of that hubris. I deal with corporate public relations departments and upper-level managers who understand that their messages are filtered through our magazine and our writers.
Occasionally, people aren’t savvy. Usually, they are folks who have not dealt with the press before. A couple of years ago, a felon who served time for environmental crimes requested that articles we posted to the Web site 10 years ago be deleted. After much consideration and discussion, we deleted them. The actual crimes occurred nearly 15 years ago, he had served his time, changed careers and industries completely and moved to a different state. But that’s not the same as the mayor’s request to rewrite history. This guy acknowledged his crimes, admitted his guilt and humbly asked that the articles be removed because when his name was Googled – often the first move of potential employers and bullies at his kid’s schools – our article came up.
Only twice have I had corporations ask us to rewrite history and both times, it was the same corporation. Both times, the articles – one a feature and one a news article – were extremely positive. The company has a strong safety culture and a CEO who truly is inspirational in his support of EHS. The company has valuable information to share about safety.
What’s unfortunate is that for lack of a better term, the corporation is a control freak.
A number of years ago, when I was relatively new to the magazine (then Occupational Hazards), we were invited to visit this company and write about their safety program. They controlled the visit, regulating what I saw and the managers and employees with whom I spoke. I wrote what my editor and I thought was an interesting, honest and thought-provoking feature article about this company’s safety process, based on interviews with both employees and management. It highlighted their successes and their ongoing challenges and showed a company that placed great emphasis on EHS. There was nothing negative in the article, but it was a realistic portrayal of safety and safety culture at the company.
They requested to see the article before publication and being a “newbie,” I agreed. The corporation’s public relations staff completely rewrote the article, changing and eliminating quotes and facts seen and heard by me during my visit to their facilities while adding additional quotes and “facts” that were never spoken or shared during the visit. Anything the least bit controversial or thought provoking was stripped out. In short, a realistic, interesting feature that expressed how difficult it is to maintain safety excellence became a boring PR fluff piece. I was enraged and disappointed that so many hours of work – days, really, since I had to travel to several of their locations – was wasted.
My editor and I discussed it and he decided the best move was to run the article they had written. I thought the article was so bad and so disingenuous after their retooling that I demanded to have my name removed as the author and he agreed. I think that if he could have placed an “advertorial” banner across the article, he would have done so.
Scroll ahead many years and I never again have written about the company. We’ve run articles they’ve submitted, but we have not interviewed or quoted anyone from the company – unless the quote came to us in writing directly from the company – since that first article.
A news article we published based on a presentation at a conference was determined by the company’s communications staff – within 12 hours of publishing – to need “softening.” There were places in the news article that needed “a bit” more information, I was told. In a voicemail, it even was said that too much emphasis had been placed on the CEO (and, apparently, his dedication to EHS, though that was not specifically said). Who throws their CEO under the bus like that??? I actually laughed out loud when I listened to the message.
I immediately had a flashback to 15+ years ago. I no longer have a record of my correspondence with the company from back then, but I’m CERTAIN the email or phone call that came from them all those years ago used the same language: “A few changes,” “soften,” “correcting facts,” etc. I was not jumping on that runaway train again.
The current communications person said that “out of courtesy,” the NEWS article should have come to her for prior approval before publication. She also indicated she was working on a new version of the article that we could publish instead and that she wanted the article removed immediately “because the article wasn’t going in the direction [the presenter would] like it to go” because “it isn’t saying exactly what [the presenter] would like it to say.” (And yes, I plan on keeping that message for a long time to remind myself of this experience.)
My guess is that a lot of news articles – most news articles, even – don’t go the way the people interviewed or written about would like them to go. I’m sure the environmental crimes felon would rather we had written about him volunteering at his children’s school, rather than his conviction and incarceration for knowingly polluting the local water supply.
In this most recent case, what astonished me is that a positive article, full of excellent information and inspiration messages, didn’t have the correct PR spin for the presenter. For a news article, the piece was long; perhaps he expected every word he uttered to be published. He apparently did not understand that his role as a presenter was to provide the information; my role as reporter and editor was to choose the information I felt was most valuable to the reader.
What I found truly shocking, however, is that he wanted the CEO’s commitment to safety downplayed.
In the past, I’ve had people sing the praises of their supportive CEOs, suggest that I mention the CEO’s commitment to safety and offer examples of the CEO’s dedication to a corporate culture that values safety. I’ve never, ever had a manager request that the CEO not receive recognition for his or her support of EHS.
And I guess that’s one of two points I’m trying to make with this blog post: In their insistence in getting “his” message across, the presenter and the company’s communication department ensured that the company’s message has been lost. I deleted the article I wrote and will not run another article submitted by the company or about the company, unless it makes news by being cited by OSHA or EPA.
Which is my second point: Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.