How To Handle Bad Press With A Forced SmileJerry Portwood is the editor of the New York Press, and he does a lot of theater reviews. Like lots of theater reviewers, he gets free tickets for plays from publicists. But last week, he was abruptly disinvited and taken off the list for the play "The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents," just before he was scheduled to attend. The reason: the play's publicist didn't like a NY Press story that pointed out that the play's publicists were marketing it by hyping up the fact that Meryl Streep's daughter is a cast member. Losing a pair of free tickets isn't the world's biggest tragedy, but it brings up the interesting question: How are flacks supposed to handle bad press? Answer: a lot better than this. The shortest bit of advice that smart PR people can take about bad press is to just suck it up. Nobody likes a negative review, but you have to take the long view of things. Cutting off news outlets for one story you didn't like is the equivalent of selling all your stocks as soon as the market has a bad day; a panicky way to ensure that you get nothing good in the future. Jerry Portwood tells us that when he spoke to the PR guy in question,
He explained that [Meryl Streep's daughter] Grace hadn't seen the piece but the publicists were not pleased. Whatever, free tix are one thing, no big deal. If I want to see the show I'll pay for them like the rest of the world. But to invite and reserve tickets for an editor of a newspaper and then to rescind that promise because of a feature that runs seems like a bad precedent.
Correct! And as a public service on behalf of every reporter in the world, we'd like to remind flacks at large that NO freebie—be it free passes to an event, free product samples, or a free lunch—ever implies positive coverage as a quid pro quo. If you want a guarantee of positive coverage, only represent things that are great, or try handing out cash-filled envelopes to the shadier members of the journalism profession. [Media corollary: Do not sell your soul for freebies.] Now: do freebies in practice lead to more positive coverage? Of course! Reporters are human, and being treated nicely engenders warm feelings in them, which are often subconsciously reflected in nicer coverage. That's why PR people give out freebies in the first place. But always, always, there is the understanding that the media is allowed to say you suck, if that's how they actually feel. We represent the readers first, and all that. In conclusion, never pull back an offer and tell a journalist that you're doing it because you didn't like something they wrote. That is sure to make them hate you more, and, if they are less than perfectly professional (which is the state of the vast majority of journalists), they will make a mental note to get back at you somewhere down the line. To all the flacks who can graciously swallow bad coverage and smile at the reporter the next day (even if you don't want to), the world—and the media—is yours. [Disclosure: I've freelanced for the NY Press]