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January 4, 2016

This is Not The Way to Treat a Reporter

Political journalists want to make headlines with the answers they get from Presidential candidates, not with the questions. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in the 2016 campaign, where up is down and black is white, we are hearing as much about the reporter’s queries as we are about the candidate’s responses.

The media’s conduct has become as much a topic in this race as the minimum wage, abortion, and social security.

Some of this shift could be an organic response borne from the sense that the Washington media is disconnected from real ‘merica. Perhaps the explosive outbursts we’ve seen from current candidates simply provide a frustrated populace the moment to vent sentiments bottled up too long.

Just consider, maybe what we are seeing is actually a contrived maneuver, designed by the candidates to do more than just parry and duck from tough questions. It’s not enough anymore for candidates to stop after ‘no comment’ or an artful dodge. The best defense against a tough question is now a good offense against the reporter who asked it.

You’ve seen variations of this tactic throughout the campaign: accusations of “gotcha” journalism, calling for substantive questions to avoid answering the substantive questions that were just asked, and questioning a journalist’s accuracy without even providing evidence a story is wrong.

Candidates on both sides have resorted to such strategies. Twisting the klieg lights onto the interrogators creates an opportunity to put points on the board with the base and coax a little cash out of sympathetic audiences. Candidates are using a kind of political performance art to forge a rallying cry and raise money for counter-attacks against what they call the ‘unfair and biased media.’

Would this work in the world of business?

Before you say ‘executives would never do something like that’, remember the Uber executive who said the company might hire opposition researchers to “dig up dirt on its critics in the media.”  Reporters were quick to take the company to task for the comments.  The negative publicity came at a time when Uber was fending off regulators around the world with concerns about the company’s business model.  Media distrust will not help Uber win hearts and minds in their efforts to cultivate public support.

Consider living by this variation of a line from one of the most memorable speeches ever: ‘ask not what you are saying to your company, ask if how you are saying it effects your company?’ Politicians have leverage over the media greater than even the most powerful of corporate titans. Also, when you are the CEO of a company, it is much more difficult to play solely to the emotions of your investors, customers and employees. Success is measured by the holy corporate trinity: growth, revenue, and profits (not necessarily in that order).

As a business leader or a political candidate, you cannot control the questions that the media asks you. However, you can control your answers. The story should be about your vision, your product, or your company, not about the interaction with the media. And, you can’t just rely on perfectly parsed language. Your pitch must be perfect as well. How your response is delivered can undermine even the best-worded answers.

So, what can companies learn from the jousting we have seen between political candidates and the media?

Don’t do it.

What we’re seeing from the campaign should not become the new normal in interactions with the media. More than ever in land of business, there is a fine line between winning and whining. You don’t want to come close to that line.

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