Media relationships: Regret and responsibility during a pandemic


It’s been painful to sit ringside to so much hurt around us. Not just the coronavirus patients and their families. Not only the government leaders struggling with no-win decisions and confronting unprecedented and agonizing budgetary choices in the months ahead. But all those experiencing the brute-force whammy on the economic front. Layoffs. Furloughs. Businesses shuttering, perhaps for good.

What makes so much of it especially heartbreaking is our sense of guilt that, so far (knock on wood), our agency has felt little impact from the pandemic. Of course, we are all working remotely, and our morning staff meetings are now via Zoom where we make off-handed comments about the paintings or flowers in the background or the toddlers and dogs that add some, well, personality to the proceedings. Yeah, we’re adjusting. The work goes on, and our clients and the media we work with are adjusting in parallel.

Eight weeks into our New Normal, there are two themes – both having to do with relationships – that are emerging that I think are worth noting.

No Relationships

First, we have new clients at our door (metaphorically, speaking, that is) who have reached out for some communications help. That’s predictable. Crises have their way of making public relations people popular, and clients turn to us to provide sage counsel – even if it’s just to confirm their instincts – and help them craft messaging that may not make a crisis go away, but at least won’t make things worse.

What is consistent about these organizations – companies and nonprofits alike – is invariably how much they regret not having implemented a regular communications program prior to all this. They recognize how valuable some key media relationships would be during such moments when they have stories to tell about how they are responding to the virus. They wish they had established a more consistent cadence of communications with their customers and prospects and built up a more engaged presence on social platforms. I get the sense they feel the way I do when I go to Starbucks, walking in without any confidence that I can even order what I want without knowing the right Starbucks-approved lingo.

Established Relationships

Then there are our clients who are polar opposites. They have worked hard over the years to establish strong relationships. They regularly respond to media requests, even when those requests do not always lead to flattering stories. They always endeavor to meet reporters’ deadlines, find them human interest angles and make VIPs available for interviews. We love those clients, those who recognize that media relations is a two-way street, and a very long street at that.

With this reputation for being forthcoming and transparent, they now find themselves having to make choices that put two of their underlying objectives in conflict. Consider this dilemma. Let’s say for the sake of argument that you own a bunch of local gas stations, still open for the essential service that you provide. You have taken every precaution to ensure the best you can the safety and wellbeing of your employees and customers. You regularly clean and disinfect the pumps and handles, make hand sanitizer available, stop taking cash, and you just may have the cleanest bathrooms now this side of a Swiss hotel.

And then one of your employees tests positive for COVID-19.

What do you do? Of course, you direct the employee to stay home and give the facility where he worked an extra-thorough cleaning. But given your exemplary track record with the media, do you feel compelled to notify reporters about the positive test?

Let’s say you decide to announce it to the news media, and there are stories on TV news that night and in the local paper. And the next day, the regular rhythm of customers slows to a crawl. Coincidence? Likely not.

On top of that, you know from informed sources that other gas stations in the area also have had employees who have tested positive. But they have decided to keep mum about it for fear that consumers can be irrational, despite assurances that there is no inherent risk to their health.

In this case, are your strong media relationships actually hurting you?

These are questions for public relations ethics courses, and companies are struggling with how to maintain relationships they have worked so hard to build vs. cooperating with the media in ways that could hurt their bottom line. Even so, in cases like this, does the public have a legitimate right to know?

I do a ton of crisis counseling, and what I have found over the years is that nothing exposes a company’s core values like a crisis. It’s in moments like these that you really find out who you are.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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