Bypassing the Media’s Filter to Relay Your Message

By Jeff Jubelirer, From the March 24 issue of The Legal Intelligencer

Just over two decades ago, if you wanted to raise awareness of your firm or organization, you would have to either pay for an ad or pitch your story to a journalist at a newspaper, radio or television station and hope they would cover it. But today, it’s never been easier to share your story, and you don’t need the media filter that previously determined if something made the news and how it was presented to viewers, listeners and readers. Attorneys and professional communicators can learn some lessons by reviewing what two state officials (one now out of office) and one former Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman recently presented to the general public.

First, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is fighting to save her reputation. It seems that each day leaks from the grand jury panel are being reported in the news. How could she and her team get their side of the story told without having to accede to anything the prosecution says? A website, www.truthaboutkathleenkane.com, presents a full-fledged defense of the embattled official, and includes a fact sheet, statements, favorable media pieces and legal filings. The website was trumpeted by Kane’s attorney and spokesman, Lanny Davis, in several published articles as a mechanism to respond to the various news leaks that were damaging his client’s chance for a fair hearing in front of the state Supreme Court.

Second, former Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord recently pleaded guilty to extortion charges related to his 2014 campaign for governor. Prior to his formal plea, McCord shared his intentions and an apology by video that was disseminated statewide to the media and other stakeholders. The timing enabled McCord to get his side of the story in front of the press and public before further negative stories about him and his intent to plead guilty appeared.

Third, Philadelphia School Reform Commissioner Bill Green was recently removed from his position by Gov. Tom Wolf. Before Wolf released his decision to the public, Green acted first, putting out a video after normal working hours that broke the news and shared his point of view. He shared the video via Twitter, and it was then picked up by traditional media outlets and utilized on broadcast news; it also served as background for newspaper stories.

Whether or not these officials’ communications strategies worked is up for debate, but they did earn the attention of many. Let’s next take a look at how bypassing the media first has come about, and why and when it may make strategic sense for you, your firm or your clients to adopt the same approach. I’ll also address one major drawback.

The biggest factor enabling us to bypass the media is technology. A Wix or WordPress website is relatively simple to design and cost-efficient compared to just a few years ago, when the development of a new site could cost quite a bit of money. Video can be shot on your iPhone or iPad (albeit not of the highest quality, at this point) and easily uploaded to your email or to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms for wider distribution.

The number one reason many choose to sidestep those pesky reporters is so that they can completely control the message, including the timing. Your words should not be misinterpreted, since you wrote them, prepared them in advance, and they weren’t edited to fit a newspaper or television station’s space or broadcast limitations. Building a website is like painting on a palette where you can lay out whatever messages you like.

Another benefit, especially related to video, is the opportunity to show more authenticity. It’s your face, your voice and your words. There’s no spokesperson spinning your tale. There’s no need to push stop on the record button; the time is all yours.

However, the one major drawback to bypassing the media’s filter is credibility. When you advocate for yourself, all things being equal, it won’t be perceived as being as credible as when an external third party—an academic, good government advocate or parent—speaks on your behalf. You should measure this tradeoff before deciding to bypass the media.

There are four scenarios where I believe it makes good sense to take your message directly to your intended audiences.

First, when you’re working on or representing a complicated matter or issue, it is harder to count on the media to understand and filter it without mistake. Second, if you are having trouble getting media interest in your message or story, then it makes good sense to take it directly to the public.

Third, if you are in a campaign or other adversarial situation and the opposition (whether due to money or otherwise) is drowning out your message in the media, it would behoove you to consider bypassing traditional media. Fourth, when you need to be ready at a moment’s notice to release news—responding to criminal charges or laying out your client’s contingency plan in case of a company strike, for example—it is smart to have standby materials, such as a Web page, video or fact sheet, prepared to launch and be distributed to the public—investors, customers, clients, employees and boards of directors—that matter most to you or your organization.

No matter what time of day, your news cycle—and the Internet’s—never ends.

Jeff Jubelirer is vice president of Bellevue Communications Group. He leads the development and execution of his clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.