How to Win With the Media
Fake News. The term makes me cringe. Not only because it’s generally said as a preemptive strike by people who want to distance themselves from any present or future unflattering stories, but because it often is just not true.
I’m not speaking about the National Enquirer or US Magazine, I can’t vouch for entertainment or celebrity news, but I can vouch for news reporters. I’ve been one since the late ‘70s and have worked in about nine newsrooms, some radio, mostly television, affiliates, owned stations and CNN. Reporters work long, hard hours, often for very little pay. Print reporters, who generally make less than broadcasters, make much less, work even harder and with less of the glory, in my opinion.
Journalism is a calling, one fewer and fewer young people are entering. Journalism schools are being overrun with public relations majors. PR job hours are more normal and the pay is generally better.
But there may be times when your law firm needs to get out its story. You have a great case and want the public to understand. You may be looking for others who are harmed by a drug or a device, or may want to win your argument in the court of public opinion.
No consumer should have to wait the many years a mass tort takes to understand the dangers of a device or drug that your discovery has uncovered.
I’m thinking talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
Twenty years ago, physician and professor of environmental medicine and occupational health, Dr. Samuel Epstein, of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, told me never to use talcum baby powder genitally. It is linked to cancer because of asbestos fibers found in the talc. The particles lodge near the ovaries, causing irritation and eventually cancer.
How many lives could have been saved had his warning received widespread attention decades ago?
Only today is the public hearing about this warning buried in the long-overdue litigation and the enormous jury verdicts for plaintiffs that have made the headlines.
The public shouldn’t have to wait to get this important information!
The media is the way to get out the word. But how do you pitch a story without being taken for a ride?
Hopefully, you are a news consumer in your local area and from national outlets, radio, newspapers, broadcast. There is always a friendly reporter in your area.
Consumer “On Your Side” types are still a feature of every television newsroom. Contact them or find someone who works a similar “beat” for a newspaper. Don’t leave out alternative papers. They too have readership and reach.
Have a meeting over coffee. Let them know you are well-meaning and that as a personal injury lawyer you too work “in the public interest,” just like holders of the public airwaves (broadcast).
The bottom line is this – whoever gets a story to a reporter first is the narrative that will likely prevail.
So find a friendly face in the crowd and tell them the story.
But what if there are things that cannot yet be revealed?
Understand that reporters use a language.
Most reporter follow the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Conduct. It is a good and thorough code for professional conduct. Read it. Cite it to them. Most reporters have been encouraged to follow at some point in their career.
Here is the language you use with a friendly reporter including the ground rules for information that can and cannot be revealed.
Off the Record – means they cannot use it. They must find another source to go “On the Record” with that information. Make sure your reporter understands that promise.
On Background – Meaning they can use the information but it didn’t come from you. It is simply the context they need to tell a story.
For the Record – Means that you can be quoted. Make sure you are carefully crafting what you want to say. There are generally no do-overs.
Have your reporter friend recite what they mean when they say “Off the
Record,” so you can check their understanding just in case they have a different interpretation.
They may look at your with surprise. How do you know that? Well you’ve read the code of conduct and you understand the rules. Do they? If they do not, finish your coffee and say have a nice day.
Again, reporters work long, hard hours and for little pay. It is a calling and a good reporter is passionate about that calling. Reporting is one of the fastest ways to see the world and come face-to-face with issues of our time. Occasionally you even have a front row seat to history.
These people do exist and they can be immensely important in helping you craft your narrative to the public.
Use the media to your own ends and you may find your story, your litigation, gains traction to bring you clients and to raise awareness of a real and emerging danger that the public needs to know now, not years from now when the harm has already occurred.