Avoiding Ethical Pitfalls in Media Relations: Michael Smart

Joining me on this week’s episode is Michael Smart, a trainer and coach that many PR teams, large and small, turn to when they need to earn more media placements and level up their writing. He is regularly one of the highest-rated speakers at the industry’s largest conferences, and I’ve been to a number of his sessions and learn something from every one.

In this interview, Michael focuses on ethical pitfalls PR pros may face in media relations and shares practical advice on how to avoid them, including:

Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I started off as a newspaper reporter, even though I got my degree in PR, and then I worked day to day in the trenches at a PR job for 14 years. While I was doing that, I would attend PRSA conferences and admire the speakers there, and I thought, “I wonder if I could do that.” I responded to a request for proposals. The stars aligned, I got picked, I gave a speech, I was terrified, and people ended up liking it. I ended up doing more of that, and people started hiring me to speak and train, and eventually, I quit my full time job, and now I get to do that. It’s a wonderful life.

Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

It was awesome that you invited me to be a part of this podcast, because I hadn’t thought about ethics for a long time. My initial reaction was, “I don’t know that I’d be a good guest, Mark, because I haven’t really dealt with that” And what I concluded as I’ve thought through this deeper is that, like everybody, I confronted ethical challenges earlier in my career, but because I was fortunate enough to have an ethical framework, a framework of values, from the beginning of my career. There were sacrifices involved, but I didn’t agonize about it. It’s impossible to say for sure, but I think because I made those decisions early in my career, I kind of preempted the possibility of tougher dilemmas later.

There was a time when I first started as a speaker and trainer, I was still working full time, and I would be excited every time somebody called and asked if I’d consider coming to train them. At the time, the amount of money I could make doing a training gig was about 1/10th of my annual salary. So, these were big opportunities. One day, the call came and it was from a really professional woman, and she outlined all the things she needed, and she explained that their previous trainer had fallen through, and she had her team coming from all around the world. It was a multinational company on this given day, and she had to have somebody. It was only a month away, and, please, please was I available?

And I said, “You know, so far it’s sounding good. Tell me about the types of news stories that you’d like to get more coverage about.” She said, “Well, our primary lines of business are vodka and cigars.”

And that is funny now, because my whole life, I’ve chosen not to drink alcohol or smoke, I make no value judgments about other people who do, but that’s an important value to me. My wife and I raised our kids with that choice, and I immediately knew it’d be hypocritical if I went and coached people how to get more media coverage for something that I don’t believe in.

I heard her out. I thanked her for interest. I told her it wasn’t going to work for me. And this is one of the lessons I realized, Mark, that has helped me, and that is I made that decision on a value level, but it was also consistent with a utilitarian outcome, and that is I knew I would suck at training people in how to promote vodka and cigars. That’s what I explained to her.

When I watch Jeopardy, that potent potable category is horrible for me. I just don’t know anything about alcohol, so I believe that most of the time, if you don’t have a value basis for an ethical decision, doing what most people would classify as the right thing is still going to help you end up better off in your career.

You mentioned that when you made these ethical choices, some sacrifice was involved. Was this the case that was a financial impact, or there are other issues that came up?

I missed out on that windfall payment, but also, I would have been uncomfortable the entire time if I’d taken that gig. I believe that I ended up with a steady stream of new business inquiries from clients that are consistent with my values because I made that decision early on. So, I came out way ahead.

Is there another example you can share?

Before I got into the training, when I was working in-house as a media relations director, was serving as a spokesperson on a controversial issue. The organization I represented had put on an activity and an 18-year-old young man tragically died while participating in the activity. This was the subject of intense media scrutiny, and it turns out that he had directly disobeyed doctor’s orders from only a week before not to participate in this very activity, because it would put him at risk.

The media were just all over us about why didn’t we have an EMTs stationed at this activity? Why weren’t the referees trained in first aid? And all these sorts of questions, and we decided right away this family was burying their son. They were not criticizing the organization. They were not speaking to the media. They didn’t ask for any of the scrutiny.

We said, “We’re not going to drag their son through the mud and say, ‘You know, he asked for this,'” so we just sat on the news that he had this condition, and that he’d just disobeying doctor’s orders, and we answered the questions, but we didn’t say, “Hey, this isn’t our fault. It’s because of him.”

It seems obvious now, and it was the right thing then, and it’s obvious now, but at the time, Mark, we were getting pilloried in the media, and as the guy taking those calls, it was frustrating, not tempting, but frustrating to not be able to say more. And of course, like all media maelstroms it blew over in a week or two. We were fine, and I’m so glad that we didn’t add to what was already a very difficult time for grieving family.

Let me do a little bit deeper on that. How tough was it to convince the rest of the management team that, “I have information that would protect our brand, but we’re not going to attack somebody else”?

This goes back to a choice I made way before, and that is to hold out hope that I could get employment with organizations and for leaders who shared my values. So in this case, it was zero degrees difficult. In fact, they probably would have been mad at me if I had gone the other direction.

The leaders in that organization put individuals first, especially people dealing with tragedies like this and they knew they were secure enough in their roles as leaders of a pretty large and stable institution. They’d been through brush fires like this before, and they knew it would pass.

Why didn’t you go to the media off the record, and say, “We don’t want to throw this person under the bus, but you’re attacking us. This is a story here that here’s the meat. We don’t want to attack this person, but you should kill the story, because you don’t have all the facts right.” Was there discussion around that?

Intervening years are fogging my memory, but I remember being on the phone with at least two reporters, being frustrated that I quote “Couldn’t say that,” and I do remember that other outlets who often covered us didn’t. So, my recollection is that these were reporters who didn’t cover us regularly, and I didn’t have the level of trust where I was sure that they wouldn’t go out with that info anyway. That’s sort of media relations tactical choice of, hey, if you don’t know these folks are going to abide by an off-the-record or on-background agreement, then you have to be comfortable with everything you say is showing up in their papers.

Is there anything you would change or do differently about either one of those circumstances?

I sometimes go back and forth on the first one, the turning down the business, because I’ve done that a couple times since, and I’ve never had the guts to tell them straight up why. The reason that I don’t is I don’t want to make them feel like I think I’m better than they are for working at that organization. I don’t want to make another person feel bad, but I’m missing, perhaps, a chance to stand for values that maybe other people could draw strength from, so that’s just something I struggle with.

What are you seeing as some of the key ethic challenges for today and tomorrow, particularly as it comes to media relations?

There are these practices that I see emerging, that demonstrate a clear lack of integrity. But even if you’re somebody who doesn’t make decisions based on values, they’re also counterproductive in terms of getting the long-term results that you want. Specifically:

  • It’s hard to get reporters’ attention via email. So, some people will actually type “Re:” into the subject line, to trick the reporter into thinking that they’ve already had a conversation with me, that this is part of a thread they’ve already engaged in, to get them to open the email. Obviously, that’s disingenuous, and while that may work once, your long-term goal is to establish a relationship of trust with that key influencer so you can go back to her again and again, and you’re going to fail if the first point of contact is based on a trick.
  • There are some other tricks people use where they’ll shop exclusive stories to lots of journalists at the same time and just go with the first one that that says yes, and then later act surprised when somebody else runs it. Obviously, it’s a lie and it’s going to hurt you in the long run.
  • Another example would be just something that the PR field is often accused of from people that aren’t really familiar with us, and that’s hyperbolizing the news we actually have to work with –  calling something the biggest, first, best, without being able to back it up, or even fudging the facts or stats that are used to back it up. You might get the story once, but commenters or other people are going to let those reporters and influencers know that those facts are questionable, and you’re not going to get to work with them again.

We are not the only ones that do this. In the spirit of the humorous side notes, I was talking to a producer for NBC Nightly News, and she was talking about how hard it is for her to get her emails opened within that news organization, like trying to make me feel better, and that PR pros I coach, that that we don’t get responses from her. She said that when she has a story she really wants her senior producer to open, the subject line she uses is “I’m throwing a party for you,” and then when they open it, she says, “Not really, but check out this great story. I didn’t want you to miss it.”

You can succeed at anything with any constraint. You just need to accept those constraints, in this case we’re talking about ethical constraints, to really prime your creativity and push yourself to get to the types of solutions you haven’t engaged previously. So, maybe I’ll coin a new credo that I’ll live by, and that is that an ethical lapses is a lapse of creativity.

Are there new areas where you have concerns regarding ethics?

I think everything that’s old is new again, and it comes back to the fundamental principles and values of don’t lie, don’t imply that you have something that you don’t by the absence of a statement. If you realize the media are running with an inaccurate narrative that’s favorable, or willing to run with a narrative that’s favorable to your organization, you didn’t tell it to them, but they are, you still have the obligation to clarify that, out of an obligation to their audience and being a good citizen. If you don’t tell them, later they’re going to find out and they’re going to say, “Why’d you let me do that?” Or they’ll probably assume or misremember that you told them in the first place.

Another area of concern is that technology can let you edit images and video such that you can’t tell that they’ve been edited. I assume that everything cool looking’s been edited now, but not all consumers do, so it’s really important to push your clients to disclose when something’s a photo illustration or a dramatization, and not depict it as being legit if it’s not. I see people not doing that on purpose, but not realizing how stringently they need to vet content that they’re putting out, that’s given to them by other folks inside their organizations.

What do you recommend in terms of crediting when it comes to pitching? If you’re sharing stats and data points, do you need to get into the full methodology, or can you just kind of highlight it and explain it later?

Now we’re getting into the scenario of a thorough and comprehensive email pitch is going to be so long it won’t get read, right? So, you keep those punchy, and then promise to send follow-up information. A quick fix would be just to link to the source info, but I’ve gotten better results, and people I’ve trained have gotten better results, without linking away from their pitches. Whether maybe those links trigger spam filters or people follow the link and get distracted, a quick media pitching tip is, although it’s counterintuitive, you offer to send more info, they say yes, and then you definitely send it along.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

This advice was given to me by Dr. Laurie Wilson, one of my PR professors at Brigham Young University. As we were getting closer to graduation, we were doing kind of a real raw Q&A with her, and one of us asked “What do you do if you’re in a position and your employer asks you to do something inconsistent with your values?” She said, “Start right now saving what you call your freedom fund.” She recommended we save three months’ salary, so that when you’re put in that position, there may be other reasons you might consider how to comply with what your boss wanted you to do, if it really was a violation of your ethics, you wouldn’t cave is because you needed to eat or pay the rent.

I took that to heart. I saved that freedom fund. It was even more relevant to me, because my wife and I had our first child when we were 25, and we always saved so that we didn’t have to make that kind of decision. And when I started my business, I made sure I had enough saved so I wouldn’t have to take or keep a client that would put me in a difficult situation.

Do you have any final thoughts?

When I was working as a media trainer, but before I’d quit my full-time job, I was fortunate to be able to be engaged in a partnership with a PR industry trade publication, and they sponsored a series of workshops around the country where they put me on the road, and I did these two-day-long workshops about how to get more media coverage. It was great for me. They did all the marketing. They filled the rooms. I got all this exposure. It was good for them as well. They served more clients and generate revenue. We did it several years in a row.

And then one of those years, I got my revenue share at the end, and it was way more than I was expecting. I went back and I did the math, and I realized that one of the junior people who had done the calculations had run it wrong, and they’d overpaid me. My contact at the organization was the CEO, so I just shot him an email and I said, “Hey, you know, pleasant surprise today, but you know, I got overpaid by this much. Here’s what you really owe me. Do you want me to shred this check or cash it and pay you back?”

I didn’t think twice about it, Mark. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t earn that money, and even if it wasn’t a value decision, someday an auditor would figure it out, right?

And how hollow would that be, to say, “Oh, I didn’t notice,” or, “I thought it was a bonus,” or whatever. He said, “Are you sure about that?” and he double-checked it. I always remember, he wrote back, “They always say you shouldn’t thank an honest man, but thank you, you know? I appreciate this.”

This is what I didn’t realize until today, Mark. Years later, my wife and I began the process of purchasing a home, and the down payment for that house was going to be my annual profit share from this workshop tour that I did, right? I’d earned it. I’d fulfilled it. We booked the revenue. It was a success. That money was virtually in hand, so we started buying this house, and the company ended up later going bankrupt, and that same CEO said, “Michael, I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to pay you yet,” and I just thought, “Okay, this must be how things work.” He kept in touch with me. This was a big sum of money. This was a down payment on a house.

He ended up paying me, Mark, before he filed for bankruptcy. I hadn’t realized it, but he could have pocketed that money before he filed for bankruptcy, right? And just told me and all the other creditors to get in line. But he paid me. I’ve never connected it back to that original little experience we had together, and I don’t know if he even remembers it, but I think there is some karma in doing the right thing.

If people are interested in hiring you to help them improve their PR pitching and their PR writing, how could they contact you?

I’m at michaelsmartpr.com, and they can check out the work I do there and get in touch if they want.

Listen to the full interview, with some humorous bonus content, here:

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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