Don’t let unethical journalism trash your good name

Journalists occasionally get the story wrong. And sometimes that’s unintentional.

But deliberate media scares are a major reputation risk which endangers legitimate discussion on important public issues. Two recent cases highlight how manipulation of or by the media can poison real debate.

In France a seemingly scientific study linked GM corn to increased cancer in laboratory rats. The study got widespread publicity and Russia even imposed a temporary ban on imports of GM corn.

However experts soon smelled a rat. They reported that the conclusions of the study were not supported by the published data. And they questioned the extraordinary media process by which selected journalists were expected to sign a confidentiality agreement which prevented them from seeking independent views before publication. It also became clear that the lead scientist is a long-time campaigner against GM products and that, by coincidence, he was about to launch a new anti-GM book.

This quote, from a Managing Outcomes article by crisis management expert Tony Jaques, describes a prime example of how dishonest journalism can create crisis management pitfalls. Reality is that, as inquisitive as the average consumer is these days, most still ask few questions when they see a “scientific report.” Even more worrisome is the fact that journalistic entities, which are supposed to operate under a strict code of ethics, will often pick up these stories verbatim without doing any research or fact-checking of their own.

While the report in this case did eventually get smacked down by the original researcher’s peers, thanks to many mainstream media outlets picking up the story it had already sparked a worldwide public scare over GM corn that is being felt not only by corn producers but also those up and down the supply chain, affecting organizations that supply the farms, as well as stores that are seeing reduced numbers of corn sales.

What crisis management steps can your organization take to mitigate the damage from untrue allegations?

First off, it pays to take a good, hard look at the allegations. Perhaps you overlooked something that others have found, perhaps not, but if you charge to your own defense only to be proven wrong, the fallout will be extremely unpleasant.

Second, stay on top of what your opponents are doing. You don’t have to like or agree with them, but in order to best prepare for crisis management it’s vital that you stay aware of the potential angles of attack and prepare a response before the issue ever enters the public arena. Once things do go public, it’s important gather your allies, including your supporters on social media (which you’ve been gathering up with all of your reputation-management efforts, right?), and encourage them to help spread your response to a wider audience.

Finally, if someone really is being dishonest in regards to your organization, whether through malice or ignorance, the most effective thing you can do is prove them wrong. Offer samples to independent labs if it’s a testing issue, offer free trials to the public if it’s a service issue, and so on. Share their reactions in a simple, straightforward, transparent manner and while it may never sway your hardcore detractors, it will provide those sitting on the fence with all the proof they need to land firmly on your side.

By Jonathan and Erik Bernstein