You may have missed this news from earlier this week, so allow me to repeat it courtesy of the Reuters news wire: there is a culprit to blame for the scandal involving tainted food shipments coming from China. The culprit is…the American media!
The culprit is…who? According to Li Changjiang, head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine for the Chinese government, our pals in the press are the ones to blame.
“Some foreign media, especially those based in the U.S., have wantonly reported on so-called unsafe Chinese products,” he said. “They are turning white to black. One company's problem doesn't make it a country's problem."
An editorial in the Chinese government-run People’s Daily also shifted the blame across the Pacific: “In recent years those people churning out the theory of a China threat have grabbed hold of this issue and not let go, treating isolated cases as the whole and maliciously attacking ‘Made in China.’”
When poor PR begins to stain a reputation (for a person, a brand, a company or even a country), it seems too easy to blame the media for getting the facts wrong. The media, of course, is not infallible. But more often than not, the media is a responsible force in reporting the facts accurately.
Samuel Johnson once wrote that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. That’s not correct – blaming the media is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Take a look at the Bush White House whenever it is confronted by the facts concerning the occupation of Iraq. Whenever the tragedy of the news becomes overwhelming, there is the inevitable spin that the media is distorting the news and “ignoring” the positive achievements of the occupation. Not surprisingly, fewer and fewer people are swallowing that notion.
If you are handling the PR for an individual or an entity receiving terrible press, don’t even think about blaming the media. The media is not out to “get” anyone. Instead, it is time to consider an abrupt shift in PR tactics. This could involve acknowledging a problem and apologizing for it (check with legal counsel and risk managers before going ahead on that, of course) or perhaps laying low for a while to avoid overexposure and to let the story deflate (as all stories tend to deflate over time).
Afterwards, a PR process of reinvention can take place that would enable a new public persona to emerge. The best example I can think of regarding this approach was Bill Gates. In the mid-1990s, he was the embodiment of ruthless digital capitalism, steamrolling smaller competition in his quest for near-monopolistic market share. That persona didn’t help him or Microsoft, but he didn’t go hogwild and bash the media. Instead, there was a considerable PR shift on his behalf. By the end of the 1990s, he began to disappear somewhat from the business pages and began to reappear elsewhere for his astonishing philanthropic largesse. It worked so well that Time Magazine actually named him as a Person of the Year for being such a benevolent moneybags.
So the next time you want to blame the media for creating some bad PR, just chill out – but not with any food from China, of course!