The PR Playbook2005 Top Ten Tactics to Influence Negative News:Sat Dec 31, 2005 21:44126.96.36.199The PR Playbook
WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2005
(CBS) This column was written by CBS News correspondent Sharyl
As someone who's done a fair amount of investigative reporting, I've
been encountering strikingly similar tactics employed by many press
agents for government agencies (under both Democrats and
Republicans), corporations, plaintiffs' and defendants' lawyers, non-
profits and other entities when they perceive a negative story is
coming their way.
Recently, when comparing notes with fellow investigative reporters,
I learned I'm not the only one noticing these common strategies. In
short, they seem to be operating from the same playbook. If there
were such a playbook, it might read something like this.
2005 Top Ten Tactics to Influence Negative News:
The PR Playbook
1. "It's Old News"
News reporters hate to hear that their story is "old news." It makes
them want to drop the subject like a hot potato. So when a news
reporter calls you about a potentially negative story — whatever it
is — just say "it's old news" even if it's not.
"There's nothing new here..."
"We just keep scratchin' our heads tryin' to figure out what's new
"This has all been widely reported before..."
2. The Mine and Pump Strategy
Without giving up one scintilla of information, relentlessly "mine
and pump" the news reporter for what he knows, so that you have
tools to attempt to pre-empt a story and/or get a head start on
damage control. Tell the reporter you can't possibly agree to an
interview without knowing things like: Who else will appear in the
story? What are the names of all the sources? What exactly did the
sources say? What pictures will be used in the story? Who made the
story assignment? Demand the news reporter put any questions in
writing. It doesn't matter that you have no intention of providing
answers or an interview. Stringing along the news reporter may
ensure you receive the benefit of his information without giving up
any information in return.
3. The Interview Sidestep and Delay
There are a hundred ways to delay a story. If the reporter requests
an interview by Wednesday, tell him he can't have it until Friday.
When Friday comes, tell him he'll have to wait until Monday. On
Monday, tell the reporter the key players are "out of town," "on
vacation," "sick," "lost their voices", "on a plane to Europe" or
are otherwise unreachable. Remember, any delay works to your
advantage: it buys you time to spin your side of the story and to
raise objections with the news organization's executives. It also
increases the chance that bigger news will happen and "your" story
will get dumped.
4. Science Sleight-of-Hand
These tactics are specially designed for stories that involve
studies and science, but a caution: they're only effective with
reporters who don't understand the intricacies of what they're
a. "That's purely anecdotal." If there's no firm study, tell the
reporter that his evidence is "purely anecdotal." Hopefully, he will
not understand that anecdotal evidence is often some of the most
powerful evidence around (it's often the reason drugs are taken off
the market or how defects in products are identified). This tactic
can be more powerful when used in conjunction with tactic "b" below.
b. "That's not real science." Of course there's no standard
definition for "real science" but when you toss out the idea that
any sort of evidence is "not real science," it might resonate with
an unknowing reporter. Since "real science" is in the eye of the
beholder, you can claim most anything is "not real science" whether
it's anecdotal, or a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.
c. "It's just one study." When a reporter has a compelling study for
evidence, use this strategy. Tell him "it's just one study."
Although a single study can be powerful evidence, invocation of this
phrase can effectively undermine that study in the eyes of the
uninformed. If it turns out there's more than one study, move onto
tactic "d" below.
d. "It's not the 'definitive' study." What makes a
study "definitive" is subjective, but you can sometimes get some
traction by trying this argument.
e. "Twist the meaning of 'no evidence of a risk' into 'proof of no
risk'." If a reporter has a documented risk of some sort, counter it
with a study that finds "no evidence of a risk." Twist the meaning
of that study into "proof there's no risk" (which is actually
definitive and entirely different). A news reporter who doesn't know
better might be persuaded by your spin. Be insistent and convincing.
5. Make it Tiny
Whether it's numbers of people hurt by a product, the amount of
lethal chemical in a compound, or adverse events reported for a
drug, there's always a way to make the number look miniscule.
Hopefully the reporter doesn't know that only a fraction of adverse
events are actually reported, that teeny-sounding amounts of many
materials can poison or kill, that fractional statistics can
translate into hundreds or thousands of injuries.
"I mean we're talkin' parts per BILLION here…do you know how tiny
"It's a small percentage of the total…"
6. "Most People Use the Product Safely"
With questionable products or drugs, try to get the news reporter to
focus on the people who aren't injured rather than those who are.
(The number of people injured is always a small percentage). For
example, most people who smoke will never get lung cancer. Play up
that angle with the reporter as in, "most people who smoke will
never get lung cancer, so how can you really be sure that cigarettes
cause lung cancer?"
7. The Cinch Connection
Hire away prominent, well-connected politicians to handle your spin.
Hire former network news producers who are still connected to high-
ranking news executives to spin and intercept negative stories.
Hire "independent" doctors as speakers and consultants, then get
them to contact the news reporter to give "independent" opinions on
the issue. Finance an "independent" non-profit, a blogger or an
academic group and get them to take your viewpoint. Many reporters
won't think to ask about a financial connection.
8. Funding Fudge
If you're a non-profit or other organization that gets funding from
special interests, don't worry, reporters usually don't dig that
deep. But if they do, just obfuscate. Here's an example:
Reporter: Do you receive any funding from the company/agency/special
Answer: I can't really say.
Reporter: You don't know?
Answer: I don't have that information.
Reporter: Can you get it?
Answer: I'm not sure I can put my hands on it.
If the reporter already knows your funding sources, maintain stern
Reporter: How much do you receive from the company/agency/special
Answer: I can't say.
Reporter: Just a ballpark — a little or most of your funding?
Answer: Just a little, but I can't say exactly how much. A small
percentage I'm sure.
Reporter: One percent? Five percent? Any estimate will do.
Answer: I don't have that information in front of me. I'm not sure I
can get it.
Reporter: If it's just a small percentage, would that be hundreds or
thousands of dollars?
Answer: I really can't say.
If the reporter chooses to disclose your funding sources, be defiant
and outraged. Act as though you've been accused of some sort of
crime and you don't like it!
9. Fatigue Factor
Send letters of objection to the news reporter and his bosses before
the story airs, even though you have no idea what the story is going
to say, and even if you've declined an interview and the opportunity
to provide information for the story. Save your most complex or
outrageous objection — one that would take at least a few hours for
the news organization to refute — and send it to the news executives
right before air time in hopes of scaring them off from the story.
Once the story does air, send more objections and be sure
the "independent" non-profits, bloggers and academics pick up on it.
A news organization that is not confident and committed may get
tired of the trouble and sniff elsewhere next time.
10. Final Tip
If it turns out the reporter knows better, then try employing
tactics one-through-nine with his bosses who may be less familiar
with the details of the story and may just buy your arguments.
By Sharyl Attkisson
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