The dangers of overly cozy media relationships can be very real. Learn when to step away from a story.
4 min read
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One of my favorite films is Roman Holiday, an enduring classic and spiritual forerunner of today's rom-coms, released that month in 1953. In case you are unfamiliar with this, Roman Holiday is the story of a king who chooses to be bad. Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a monarch from a nameless, exotic country on a state visit to Rome who decides to sneak away and embark on a journey of discovery into the Eternal City. Hepburn's character even claims that her father is in public relations! But he's actually a king!
During her adventure, she meets Gregory Peck's character Joe Bradley, an American reporter. During their first meeting, Joe does not recognize the princess, but after an unlikely and chaste night together, he soon does. When the morning headlines scream about a missing princess, Joe discovers he stumbled upon the biggest bullet of the year. Rather than admitting he's a reporter, Joe claims to be a fertilizer salesman and joins Hepburn's character on a romantic whirlwind adventure in Rome. A lot of joy and adventure follows.
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In case you haven't seen the movie, I'll try not to spoil it entirely. But the heroic journalist, who has worked his way so close to the story under at first accidental and then completely false pretenses, begins to have doubts about using fraudulent access to write a story that will advance his career. Joining Joe Bradley's character is Eddie Albert, who plays a kind of beatnik photographer, Irving Radovich, who keeps track of the princess's story and follows a big payday and offers perspective for a devil's lawyers. In a way, this is precisely why Roman Holiday is a metaphor for cases where PR professionals – or even clients – and journalists get too close.
Reporters who are too friendly with their subjects have long been an issue in journalistic and PR ethics. Such proximity can lead to unintended consequences. Facts can be blurred, and the desire of both parties for a favorable outcome, in most cases positive reporting, can make hard and fair reporting unlikely or even possible. Inaccuracies are often ignored and "softball" coverage can occur in the name of loyalty. Or the opposite is true, and negative news about a client can be published without corrections or any kind of fierce rebuttal by PR in the hope of maintaining the editorial relationship.
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There is only one time to walk away, however, especially when the relationship on the subject (or, in the case of PR, the subject's advocate) tarnishes ethical waters or "slips" key facts or other issues. This can include the sharing of inside or confidential information between reporters and PR staff. In many cases, even a seemingly positive story can cause long-term harm, including potential long-term valuation ramifications.
Knowing when to move away from a story that is based on too much information is a key skill for PR people. This is especially important as many of the people who call themselves journalists these days are opinion leaders and would-be experts. The integrity of these guys is usually suspect, as is the media they work for.
Failure to stray from a potentially negative or controversial story can result in a customer being pegged into a group with unsavory other subjects, awkward comparisons in the marketplace, and a company's branding image. It is also acceptable to move away from stories that take up too much corporate or agency resources, or from stories that move on, even if the reporter has the wrong premise. It's also very acceptable to walk away if the story violates company values and / or hurts customer allies.
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In case you want to know what's going on in the film, Gregory Peck's character takes the honorable path and sacrifices a huge payday in the name of romance and honor. His character stoically leaves the big ball unpublished and ultimately assures the princess that because of their common “Roman holiday” there will be no negative reporting and they will split up.
His honorable act in the film reflects the kind of ethics and good judgment that PR folks should practice when it comes to overly cozy relationships with the press and deciding whether or not to move away from a story.