Monday, May 15, 2006

High-Risk (to the PR Person/Agency) PR

I recently got a fascinating query from a colleague in the publishing field. She's about to announce - for a publisher - an article soon to be published in a forthcoming scholarly (i.e., peer-reviewed) journal, and she was concerned about how to do it right.

This article is going to focus on research that claims that a specific U.S. company - a big one - contributed (apparently as a matter of corporate policy) to poverty in the U.S. I haven't read the article - I frankly can't imagine any company big enough and powerful enough to do that (nor can I imagine why any company would want to - where's the profit in poverty?) - but I took this at face value.

My colleage asked about potential issues, concerns and PR opportunities - and I saw a bunch of them, and thought my reply to her might have wider interest. If you - on the agency side or on the client side - ever have to issue a release that names and attacks a corporation, individual or non-profit organization, here are some things to be concerned about (as well as some PR strategies that might work).

Issue 1: Freedom of the Press - this applies to publishers (including the publishers of scholarly journals) but not to press releases - and freedom of the press doesn't protect even the dryest scholarly journals from the risk of libel/slander, defamation or injury lawsuits. A major US corporation accused of promoting and causing poverty in the US might sue the PR agency (and win) if the release constitutes (in a judge's eye) slander/libel, defamation - or even if it just hurt their business in any material way.

Solution 1: Require the scholarly journal to indemnify their PR agency, completely, from all legal blow-back - and just in case, they ought to indemnify themselves, for the full amount of the cost of a lawsuit AND of the damage award (include punitive damages) that might come from really hurting a major corporation. The agency should get a good attorney to write the agreement - fast - and get the client to sign it before issuing the release.

Issue 2: Personal Liability. If the agency is not an incorporated business, don't issue the release until the agency becomes incorporated (not LLC, either - full liability protection) - otherwise, the major US corporation (above) might sue the agency owners personally.

I did incorporate last year for just exactly this purpose. The potential suit didn't happen (instead, my client decided to stop fighting/suing the other company and form a joint venture, but that's unlikely to happen in this one).

Issue 3: Paper Trail: Be VERY CAREFUL when talking to the press, writing pitch e-mails, etc. - if the PR person is quoted, that person (or agency) is toast. If you must pitch via email, at the very least, immediately delete from your hard drive (then do one of those "shred/scrub-with-bleach" kinds of things) all reference to that email, if for no other reason than to make sure your email pitches are not saved (so they can't later be subpoenaed). Do not put the instructions to delete emails in writing, either. You think I'm kidding? How many Enron execs will do time because they were hung by their own emails?

Issue 4: Personal Risk Revisited:
If the Scholarly Journal won't protect agency, legally (or if they are too small/too broke to really protect you), don't do the release - resign the account if you have to.

Solution 4:
However, there is a way around this. The scholarly journal can buy an indemnification insurance policy to protect the agency and it's staff (corporately and personally), regardless of their assets. They should buy one for them, too, even
though they have freedom of the press - that freedom doesn't protect them from libel/slander-type issues.

Issue 5: Generating Press Coverage. On an entirely different issue - not only release this story to the markets routinely covered by the scholarly journal, but also release it widely to the business press - and to the trade press - that routinely covers this major US corporation. If they're big, include cable business shows like Cavuto.

Assuming that these mainstream or trade-niche publications have never heard of this scholarly journal, pre-sell the release, before it goes out. Use emails (remember what I noted above about paper trails), phone calls, etc., to talk it up. Tease
this story so when it breaks, the key national and trade media will be ready. Assuming that this is a new media market for the scholarly journal, there will be a strong need to build awareness/demand for the story before the release comes out.

If major media offer/agree to embargoes, you MIGHT try it (I would be cautious if you don't know the reporters/editors, and also their publications' embargo policy), but embargo or no, you'll need to pre-sell this and not just drop it on them from on-high. Assuming you want coverage, go for it big-time by working the media in advance. When you do, consider other media:

* AP (this could be picked up locally in newspapers across the country, but won't from a press release)

* Editorial Writers (who can be outraged at this corporation - pity that A.M. Rosenthal just resigned)

* Known hostile-to-big-business Editors/Writers/Reporters/Editorial Page Editors (some journalists and news media outlets have a strong political stance or inner bias against corporations and in favor of the poor - they'll love this). To find the right anti-business media targets, start by picking any media reporter that Bill O'Reilly has railed against - if nothing else, that's a good place to start.

* NPR and PBS (but especially NPR)

* "News Magazine" shows like 60 Minutes, 20/20, etc. (for the same reason - they seem to be inclined, politically/editorially, to want to slam - or "expose" - corporations and exalt the poor)

* CNN, the three networks' nightly news programs, Keith Olberman, etc. (all for the same/above reason)

All of those media targets deserve up-front in-advance pitching.

Issue 6. Further Credibility:
Scholarly journals are credible, but not often newsworthy. Politicians are seldom credible, but they have great news value. Find some politician who'll be willing to make a public statement, preferably from the floors of Congress (so he's got immunity from lawsuits himself - these guys aren't dumb) praising the study, denouncing the corporation, and making this national political news. A call for a Congressional Hearing (or Investigation) is always good for a one-cycle news hook, even if that call doesn't go anywhere (usually, it won't).

Taking on the really Big Boys sounds like fun - very/very dangerous, but fun.