Picking fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel

Stuart Bruce has a really great post on dealing with investigative journalists (known or ‘undercover’) over on his blog ‘A PR Guy’s Musings’.

In late March The Sunday Times ran a sting operation which uncovered a cash for access scheme (paywall) involving the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer run by the co-Treasurer of the Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas. As well as leading to the resignation of Cruddas, the article led to the Prime Minister publicly releasing details of dinners held at his private residence.

Stuart’s blog goes on to detail another attempt at a ‘sting’ from The Times this time on former Conservative PR, Ed Staite. Times journalists, claiming to be business operators asked Staite how they could go about making donations to secure access to senior politicians. It seems Staite is fairly adept at his job, so when claims surfaced that he too was offering ‘cash for access’  he was able to use twitter, his blog and copies of recommendations he’d supplied to the ‘business’ people to effectively rebut the story. The process itself makes interesting reading all of which Stuart covers in much more detail.

Whilst Staite’s response should be required reading for any PR 101 course, I thought Stuart’s observations regarding the situation were spot-on. In particular he highlights three key crisis communications lessons that can be drawn from the event.

1) Speed – Ed possibly succeeded in moving the story from the front page of the Sunday Times to a far smaller story one on the inside pages. The Sunday Times was hindered by its print publishing date while Ed was able to publish three detailed blog posts before the Sunday Times even appeared.

2) Transparency – By publishing the Sunday Times email and his response along with his new business proposal Ed has demonstrated what appears to be total transparency. In contrast, as far as I’m aware, the Sunday Times has refused to accede to Ed’s polite request to be as transparent by publishing its recordings of the meetings.

3) Every company is a media company – says Tom Foremski and Ed’s response demonstrates it. More than 20 years ago my old PR lecturer used to say “You don’t pick fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel”. Well now thanks to social media everyone has their own barrel of ink. Ed’s blog post and tweets was quickly picked up and tweeted by lots of influential people making the Sunday Times look arrogant and bit daft.

I particularly like the ‘ink by the barrel’ quote. As Stuart points out, with unfettered access to social media tools and with the right training, positioning and responsiveness, everyone has the capacity to push their own side of story.