Dubious Media Inquiries: How Agencies Can Protect Clients

Inquiries at Bospar

A significant part of our job at Bospar is to review and evaluate the large number of media requests that come in for our clients. A majority of the requests are legitimate and sincere, originating from media outlets and reporters we know and trust. But occasionally, we receive inquiries or interview requests that are cause for concern.

These requests will often come from “freelancers” without CV or credentials and/or reporters whose history of published work is spotty. The requests are usually short on specifics about a story’s outlet or publication, deadline date and other concrete details that provide us with confidence that we’ll get good – or at least fair – coverage. Tipoffs to suspicious requests include vague queries about corporate data and financial information and a lack specificity in general.

Serious journalists don’t have the time for such antics, and such requests have a potentially large downside: they’re likely work being done for a client’s competitor or a hit piece of some kind. Sourcing content and competitive information using the cover of “journalism” is, unfortunately, a fairly common gambit these days. PR agencies and their clients have an absolute right to know the reasons behind why a reporter is being vague or evasive and to understand the true intentions of a media request.

As gatekeepers, we need to control access to protect our clients. What’s more, phony or vague requests inhibit our ability to adequately prepare our clients for the actual interview. We don’t want anyone surprised by inappropriate questions or to be fooled into giving away strategic or competitive information under an NDA or in an off-the-record conversation.

Checking LinkedIn and media databases is a great first step, but to best manage these suspicious requests, consider applying the following professional practices:

  • Review the assignment: legit reporters should be able to share their assignment through a documented company email or present an assignment on letterhead.
  • Speak with the editor: any competent editor should readily confirm a freelancer’s identity and assignment, including its focus, via phone or company email.
  • Get questions in advance: this will facilitate more effective interview prep and allows for catching and eliminating or changing inappropriate questions.
  • Audit the reporter’s work: check out what the reporter has done in the past, not only to review their style but to better understand how they cover a given industry or company and to determine any potential bias.

Carefully examining media requests in this manner means that agencies can more effectively understand a given opportunity and present it fairly to clients. The vast majority of reporters – even freelancers – and their employers in the media are trustworthy partners who adhere to journalistic ethics and professional practices. However, “red flags” sometimes do appear – and if after taking a closer look at the origins of a story request, suspicions remain, rejecting story requests is totally fine. Better to decline a second-tier opportunity than receive negative coverage and/or participate in an opportunity that has unintended consequences. Most requests are legitimate; asking reporters to document their story requests is totally appropriate, and real media professionals understand this. By carefully vetting story requests, we are doing both ourselves and our clients a service by preserving the integrity of the news-gathering process.

What Is an Embargo, Anyway?

Embargo at Bospar

By definition, an embargo is a stoppage or impediment. In PR we use embargoes to stop or impede journalists from covering certain news before a specified day or time in order to keep the news confidential before it goes live. We require written agreement to the terms of the embargo before we will share a press release and/or other materials for journalists’ review.

So, under what circumstances would you use an embargo?

Funding Announcements

Funding announcements are likely the most popular type of announcement where an embargo is used. As you can imagine, fundraising is a big deal for most companies, so, when it actually happens, they don’t want the news to get leaked before they are ready to make the announcement themselves.

It is important to be extremely vague in the initial pitches so that it isn’t easy to guess which company the announcement is for. This can be tricky, as you have to also provide enough information to interest a journalist.

Product Announcements

An embargo is often used with product announcements in order to make a big splash on launch dates. Depending on the product, this can be extremely important, because if the news of a new product is leaked before the product is finished, it could lead to bad reviews and negative coverage.

Mergers and Acquisitions

As you know, mergers and acquisitions are usually kept secret–and for good reason. There can be serious repercussions if the news gets out early. Companies need time to prepare statements for both their internal and external audiences; to read about this news in the press first can often cause panic and frustration.

Partnerships

Depending on the terms, an embargo is also a good tactic to use for various partnership announcements. Similar to mergers and acquisitions, there is a lot of communication that needs to happen both internally and externally before the news can go live.

What announcements don’t need embargoes?

New Hire Announcements

If the new hire has been working at the company for some time, has already updated their LinkedIn profile, and is listed on the website, there is no need for an embargo. The only situation where we would recommend an embargo for a new hire announcement is if the employee has not yet started and is still employed by another company. We typically recommend waiting about three months after the employee has started to announce the hire.

Survey/Internal Data Releases

We often do not recommend utilizing an embargo for survey or data press releases in order to maximize the coverage potential. We have seen that pitching the press release several days before it goes live with no embargo, in addition to continuing to pitch after the go-live date, results in great coverage. Journalists often do not appreciate embargoes and sometimes even break them, so this strategy works well.

Case Studies

Often we are asked for specific examples of how a company and/or product works, so when we are able to pitch a case study, we don’t like to let an embargo hold us back; we prefer to share widely as soon as we receive approval. It can be a very long, tedious process to get case studies drafted, so we recommend immediately publishing on the website in order to leverage the content.

Essentially, if you are putting out a press release with market-moving news or sensitive information of any kind, you likely want to use an embargo. Just be sure to align with your client and team on the date/time. The key to a successful embargoed announcement is to ensure that you have enough time to pitch…and that journalists respect the embargo, of course!

Are ‘Alternative Facts’ Affecting Our Ability to Interpret History?

Just the facts at BosparIt is said that “those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.”

But what happens when there is no agreement on what constitutes “true” history at a time when the attorney for the President of the United States declares that “truth is not truth?”

Furthermore, what are the implications when legitimate journalism is called into question, disseminators of “alternative facts” are given equal footing with fact-checkers, and our cultural ability to separate fact from fabrication is blurred?

Bospar recently worked with Propeller Insights on a consumer survey that explored these questions. The results were chilling.

‘Just the facts, ma’am!’

While ironically inaccurately attributed to Detective Joe Friday of the 1950s hit TV show Dragnet, the phrase “Just the facts, ma’am!” became ingrained in popular culture for decades. If only this were the case today.

The survey found, among other things, that 59 percent of Republicans feel media propaganda is causing inaccuracies in our school system. Even more disturbing is this: more Republicans trust President Trump for “the facts” than trust academics or school teachers.

On the other side of the aisle, more Democrats trust movies and documentaries than trust academics or school teachers.

Take a look at the following charts. Democrats are in deep purple; Republican, in light blue; Independents, in gold; and “other” is in light purple.

How accurate, if at all, do you think your local school system’s history classes are?

History class facts accuracy

 

Which of the following, if any, do you think are factors causing our school systems to teach inaccuracies? Please select all that apply.

School system facts

 

Which of the following, if any, do you most trust to give you the facts? Please select all that apply.

Trust in facts

 

This was a statistically valid sampling of U.S. citizens. Party affiliation is clearly a differentiator when it comes to the issue of whose facts you can trust and the degree to which they can be trusted. The lack of trust in anyone/anything is a clear present and future danger. The low regard for all categories of information resources depicted in the last chart amplifies the challenges with reaching agreement on a common set of shared values being taught going forward.

The real challenge is that when the sources used as the foundation for validation are themselves questioned, the task of finding common ground becomes that much more difficult. The denial of anthropogenic climate change and denial of science in general is an example of the difficulties modern Americans are having discerning fact from fiction.

To paraphrase an old saying: trust is hard to earn, easy to squander and extremely difficult to regain. Now, to raise each of these bars, but in particular increasing trustworthiness in our educational institutions and the legitimate press, needs to be a priority.

Knowledge really is power, and an informed citizenry can change the arc of history.