Lying to the Media is Never OK, Never Was, Never Will Be

A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Who is Hope Hicks, and What’d she do?” by Virginia Heffernan has struck a chord among PR pros.

Newly appointed Hicks, 29, is the third director of communications for the current White House, and the youngest in history to hold that position.

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Hope Hicks followed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

While news of her relationship with former Trump Staff Secretary Rob Porter was not the subject of Heffernan’s editorial, the author’s portal of Hick’s job as a “flack” is what’s sending shockwaves throughout the public relations industry.

For those unaware, a flack is a pejorative term sometimes used by journalists to label less-than-scrupulous public relations people, not to be confused with a “hack,” which connotes a security breach or taxi driver, and is a term occasionally used to label a “sloppy” journalist. Both have negative connotations.

According to Heffernan, Hicks was born into a “family of high-level flacks, whitewashing the unsavory practices or grave misdeeds of Texaco, the NFL, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump,” a reference to her family’s work as crisis communications counselors, and now as the White House communications chief, potentially deceiving the public regarding an obstruction of justice charge.

Right, wrong or indifferent, op-eds are opinion pieces. And the author of this one certainly got it wrong when she wrote, “lying to the media is traditionally called PR.”

No, it’s not. It never was and never will be.

Ironically, the PR industry at times may grapple with its own image problem. However, references to spin doctors and flacks only perpetuate a stereotype.

PR pros are essentially spokespeople, not always necessarily quoted in stories, working in the background, assisting reporters to help them do their jobs. Whether representing a brand, association or publicly traded company, PR practitioners are usually the first point of contact between reporters and clients. Building meaningful relationships with journalists based on trust is paramount to effective media relations, and to the livelihoods and careers of many public relations executives.

Although the percentage has slipped from 2016 to 2017, PR practitioners are still the third most important sources of information for journalists, behind subject experts and industry professionals, according to the 2017 Global Social Journalism Study.

One can agree that it takes a certain skill to effectively navigate any crisis communications situation, especially in a hostile media environment. Reporter deadlines coupled with mounting pressure only adds to the stress of providing timely, accurate, and credible information. But that is what makes the PR industry so specialized.

Every profession can have bad actors, or those on occasion that make mistakes, but the PR industry abides by a code of ethics, values vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole. It’s not fair, nor appropriate, to single out one instance to characterize an entire industry.

Lying to media only gets PR practitioners shunned as ineffective communicators, which often leads to loss of clients, loss of jobs, and the end to careers.

– George Medici,


The Art of Apology

“I’m sorry.”

For public figures and organizations, no other phrase could be more difficult or more complicated to say. It means something went wrong or someone was hurt (or worse).

Here are the three necessary ingredients for delivering an effective apology:

  1. Honesty: Acknowledge completely what went wrong.

Popstar Ariana Grande’s first attempt at an apology is a perfect example of what not to do. Following the disclosure of a Fourth of July video in which she displayed rude and disgusting behavior in a local doughnut shop, the popstar chose to focus her first apology on her “I hate America. I hate Americans” statements and tried to unconvincingly explain that her comments were directed at her disgust with childhood obesity in the United States.

Her failure to acknowledge the other elements of her behavior during “Doughnutgate” resulted in immediate public and media backlash that kept the story in the news for nearly a week and forced the popstar to address (and re-apologize) for the childish prank several times.

In contrast, a few years ago, I worked with a manufacturer of specialized batteries that discovered that under a certain situation their products were likely to fail. By being proactive in communicating the weakness in the battery design and a solution for avoiding the situation, the company avoided being forced to do a major product recall and was able to maintain its reputation as a preferred and trusted vendor.

The first step to an apology that rings true is to openly and factually acknowledge what went wrong. Whether the circumstances are preventable, accidental or deliberate, an open acknowledgement of what went wrong demonstrates honesty and empathy for those affected by your actions.

  1. Timeliness: Apologize as soon as possible.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson demonstrated how a quick and complete apology can actually end up creating positive results. In June, the actor made an immediate U-turn after he accidentally sideswiped a parked vehicle. After finding the vehicle owner, Johnson delivered an immediate apology and promised to pay for the damages. Johnson’s candid, quick and sincere apology not only resulted in the vehicle owner refusing compensation but reinforced his image as an all-around stand-up guy.

Following the disclosure of a New York-consumer agency investigation that found multiple incidents of overpricing, Whole Foods issued a defensive written statement accusing the agency of “overreaching” in its investigation. Public reaction included the company’s stock price dropping to near yearly lows and consumers calling for a boycott of the company stores. Less than a week later, co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb released a video on YouTube to apologize “straight up” for the issue. By personally admitting that the company was in the wrong and quickly apologizing for it, Whole Foods leadership took the “controversy” out of the story and reinforced Whole Foods brand image as a company where “values matter.” The result: news coverage of the issue ceased and the stock price has seen a steady rebound and increase since the co-CEOs public apology.

  1. Genuine Action: Outline how you’re going to make amends – and follow through.

I once consulted for a large regional hospital that discovered not one but three problems involving sexual misconduct in the same week. While one was sure to become public (an arrest involving criminal behavior); the other two incidents did not involve any arrests but had the potential to put into question the hospital’s security and hiring practices. In addition to acknowledging all of the events that had occurred and the actions the hospital had taken to reach out to potentially affected parties, the CEO also communicated the proactive measures being taken by the hospital to avoid problems in the future.

The result was that instead of a front page headline story reading “Sexual Scandals Rock Local Hospital,” the actual story was headlined “Hospital Installs New Security Measures” and ran on page 11 of the local daily newspaper.

More importantly, by following through on the preventive measures they outlined during their press conference, the hospital and its leadership retained their positive standing in the local community.

When a crisis hits, the public will often judge you or your organization not by what has happened but by the actions that follow. When you find that you or your organization is on the wrong or hurting end of an issue or event, an apology that is delivered with honesty, timeliness and genuine action can reinforce your integrity and reduce the likelihood of lasting material damage to your brand.

– E.E. Wang,

Ripe for Review


Ripe for Review (Photo Credit: Flickr, )

A few weeks ago, a cantaloupe farm from Southern Colorado became the center of attention, but not the kind of attention a small organization would opt for. A listeria outbreak linked to the farm caused 72 illnesses and 13 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This outbreak has been deemed the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade.
Disasters such as these serve as important reminders to make sure crisis communications plans are ready to go. Following are some ideas to keep top of mind when starting or reviewing that plan:

  • Create a messaging platform – A number of important points should be put together to combat any questions brought on by the media and any customers, such as addressing the issue at hand, explaining what the company is doing to settle the issue and move forward in a positive direction, etc.

  • Provide constant updates on new information – As more information is gathered and received, every bit should be readily available and shared with the public.  

  • If needed, gather third party support – If there are holes in the information for the crisis, hire additional support, such as investigators. Do everything you can to find out all of the little details so there are no missing pieces to the puzzle.

  • Gather support from the industry – If this is an issue comparable to the cantaloupe saga, it will affect other players in the industry. Communicate with other companies in similar spaces who can help communicate information about the issue as well.

  • Hire a communications firm with experience in crises – There are many firms that focus extensively on crisis management and can help companies mitigate the damaging effects of a crisis.