Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon

One of my part-time gigs is teaching public relations courses to students at Michigan State University. When we start talking about media relations, I explain how it’s not that hard to understand, but it can be hard to execute. That’s because media relations is primarily about building relationships.

There is a symbiotic connection between journalists and PR professionals. They both need each other to do their jobs well, which means both sides need to understand the other one’s wants, needs and desires. It’s not a system that is completely in balance, however, since journalists are able to impart quite a wrath on a PR person, their employer or their client should things turn less civil.

One of my favorite old sayings about dealing with newspapers reporters and editors is, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon.”

It is vital for people to understand that while you can’t kowtow to the media’s every whim, when you get right down to it “the media” is just a group of people trying do their jobs so they can pay the mortgage and maybe, on a good day, feel like they’ve made a difference in this world.

That’s why I am flabbergasted when I see reports of PR spokespersons or companies making huge mistakes and turning a potentially good or neutral relationship into an adversarial one.

A couple of recent cases to consider come out of Florida.

First, a group of Toyota dealerships pulled their ads from local ABC TV stations “in response to persistent reporting on the company’s sudden unintended acceleration problems.” Because, somehow, they must believe that hurting the stations economically will force them to call ABC News and ask them to call off the dogs? That’s highly unlikely because when I was a newspaper reporter, I knew that stories resulting in calls from officials to my boss generally meant I was getting close to something bigger and they were nervous. Besides, pulling the ads resulted in more news coverage by more news organizations than just ABC News, so the dealers actually created more headaches for themselves.

Then we have one of the most bone-headed PR moves I’ve ever seen a spokesperson pull. Karen Ryan, public relations manager for the LCEC electric company, wasn’t happy with how the local FOX TV station had been continually reporting on customer complaints. When enough was enough for Ms. Ryan, or perhaps for her bosses, she sent an email to the station management asking for a meeting to discuss the situation. She included a veiled threat to go above station management to the corporate owners if necessary.

FOX 4 responded with a 5 minute, 41 second news story about the entire situation. That was followed up with a story that lasted more than 3 minutes and talked all about how Ms. Ryan and LCEC were done doing interviews with FOX 4.

When I shared the first story via Twitter recently, here are what some folks had to say about it:

@digimae: WOW. They spent 5 times as much time on that because of her letter. Amusing!

@ryanknott: I love PR people who choose to have a confrontational relationship with the media. So productive and helpful. She missed a tremendous opportunity to garner GOOD PR. Total fail.

@anneread: That was a bit painful to watch.

I will never understand why people think that fighting with the media is a solid tactic. I have been the person who had to take phone calls from reporters working on a less-than-flattering story about the boss, the company and the client I was working for. I have handled them all with courtesy and common sense. I may not agree with where the story is headed, but maintaining an open dialogue with a reporter is a much easier way to make sure your side of the story is told fairly and completely.

I’ve explained to more than one boss who was frustrated with media coverage that attacking a reporter or editor for one story does not garner you better stories — in fact, it tends to have the exact opposite effect. After all, if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine what a printing press or a TV studio can do to you. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You just have to ask Karen Ryan at LCEC what it feels like to show up with a knife at a gunfight.

5 comments on “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon

  1. You’re providing excellent training, Ari, for future PR pros. Reporters have a job to do and so do we. Pointing out a factual error can be handled calmly and professionally, and most reporters are glad to correct errors of fact.


  2. This interview occurred on the eighth straight day of 40 minute interviews. Each night FOX aired approximately 9 seconds of tape. There was no way to FOX has lowered themselves to the electronic national enquirer. It has been ambush journalism at its finest.


  3. Yep, this is a PR nightmare (LCEC) and a fine example of what NOT to do as a PR professional. To say that her talking to the media (her job title) will raise rates, and then to refuse to do her job that we ARE paying for is absurd. But in reality, it just shows defeat. LCEC knows their practices will be coming to an end very shortly and are turtle-ing.

    Thanks Again!


  4. Both Florida case studies are instructive examples of self-inflicted wounds. Petulance and arrogance are a formula for failure in *any* situation.

    Also, just for the record (as we ink veterans say): That century-old “Never pick a fight with . . .” aphorism is attributed to Mark Twain, who used it long before Bill Clinton dusted it off and put it back in play.


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