When keeping your mouth shut is a big PR mistake

The Chicago Tribune did a solid job of reporting about an important issue in “Plan for 20,000-hog facility sparks revolt in western Illinois” on Dec. 28, 2016. The 1,800-word article details the damage that Professional Swine Management’s plan to build the Runway Ridge Farms hog farm will do to the environment, the quality of life and the local infrastructure.

It’s a harmful list that undoubtedly persuaded a lot of readers to oppose the hog farm not just in Fulton County a few miles southwest of Peoria but hog farms everywhere.

So what did Professional Swine Management have to say to respond to the article and its damaging assertions and facts?

No comment.

As the Tribune article noted: “Company officials declined interview requests and said they would not comment on their Fulton County plans or any aspects of their business. ‘I think at this point we don’t have any comment on any of these items,’ said Julie Totten, chief financial officer.”

In other words: Screw you. The public be damned. It’s our business so get out of the way. No, that’s not what the company actually said, but that’s how many people will read it. The damage to the company and the industry as a whole is incalculable.

Having worked as a PR director for a publicly held, Fortune 50 company, I fully understand the urge, predisposition and even the need to remain silent. Lawyers, whose standard response is to shut the hell up, almost always have the last word in touchy PR situations like this. And in the short run, that might be the right policy.

But the company has set in motion larger forces in the political and public policy spheres that will rebound against it. Many people will figure that “swine” is an appropriate name for the company. As the article notes, it’s just a small number of people who showed up for a meeting to carry on the fight against the swine farm, but now they’ve got many allies throughout the state. With public opinion on the side of the neighbors objecting to the swine farm, it will be a lot tougher to steamroll the project through.

Furthermore, the article quotes people who make the case for stricter regulation of the swine industry. Expect to see the Illinois Legislature to consider bills to impose tougher environmental rules and give regulators more power to enforce those rules. Fines would be increased. Perhaps even the Feds will get involved. The entire industry will be hurt by the apparent arrogance of Professional Swine Management.

Because of the nature of its business, the company shouldn’t be surprised by the negative reaction. Instead of a damaging “no comment,” the company should have been prepared to make its case if it emerged as a public issue. As the article hints (in a relatively small way), the industry does take steps to protect the environment and quality of life of neighbors. The company should have had a pro-active package of responses all set to go even before it knew that the project would be getting major media attention. So the company’s silence has missed an opportunity to make its case with facts and figures.

Moreover, it must be prepared to respond simultaneously with the first newspaper article or media presentation. Waiting to respond later automatically puts the company on the defensive. Coverage of the response probably won’t be as timely or intense as the first disclosure. Sometimes, there’s no tomorrow as some editors and producers will take the attitude (as wrong as it is) that “you’ve already had your chance to respond and you blew it.”

The company’s non-response feeds the belief that it is “hiding something.” It supports the inclination in some newsrooms (as wrong as it is) that big swine farm companies, like oil and other large companies, have only their self-interest in mind.  And nuts to everyone else.

Maybe it’s true.

Visiting a newspaper’s editorial board

Lots of people try to get a meeting with an editorial board to win the newspaper’s endorsement. Lots of people fail because they don’t understand how an editorial board works.

Editorial boards are confronted with a daily barrage of requests for meetings, endorsements and a few kind words. Sometimes the requests so self-serving that they’re turned out immediately. Sometimes the requests are outlandish. Sometimes they come PR people who are only interested in meeting the board so they can bill their clients for some extra fees.
 
Editorial boards will be more attentive to your request if you can show how what you’re pitching is important or interesting for their readers. That should be so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But as a former editorial board member, I can testify to the many people who don’t understand the first rule.
 
So, here are some examples of what might work. Say you are:
  • A business facing a crisis because a toxic cloud escaped from your plant and you want to let everyone know how you plan to fix the problem.
  • A civic group proposing a viable economic development plan for the city.
  • A grass roots organization fighting for an ordinance that will help protect your neighborhood from gangs.
  • A congregation that is fighting to keep its historic church out of the clutches of a demolition crew.
  • A legitimate candidate for public or elective office.
  • The new head of a local, troubled university that has plans for substantial change.
  • A volunteer group that’s doing something unique to help the hungry. (Keep in mind that you’re not the only group that’s doing it.)
Here are things that probably won’t succeed:
  • You are a business that plans an expansion in your city. And you want to be congratulated. That’s nice, but it’s most likely a news story, unless your expansion will have an important impact on the city. Likewise, if you are unveiling a new product.
  • Your squabble with some person, institution or business is too parochial. Unless, of course, there is a major question of justice or some other matter of public interest.
  • Some editorial boards are reluctant to tell someone how to run his business. Whether, for example, a local sports team should have more appearances on free commercial TV channels.
 Understand that most editorial boards are busy, extremely so. You don’t always have to hold a meeting of the full board to get your point across. Some editors will be glad to refer you to a board member who is knowledgeable in the subject matter. Save everyone some time and make that a phone interview.
 
Don’t think you have to bring in an entourage with you. What good does a half dozen or more people sitting in on the meeting do other than reinforce the idea that you don’t really know the inside and outside of the issue you want to discuss? I was always more impressed when one person (or two) people showed up confident and knowledgeable enough to make a credible case on their own.
 
When you come in, be prepared to answer tough questions.
 
Editorial boards are appointed by the owners, publishers or top editors to represent the medium’s views. The board members usually are competent and experienced journalists who often have “seen it all.” It wouldn’t hurt for you to see who is on the board beforehand and check out their prior work.
 
Positions and endorsements generally are arrived at by the consensus although I’vae seen a vote taken on some especially contentious issue facing the editorial board. On some few matters, such as an endorsement of a presidential candidate, the owners or publisher can overrule a board. (It is after all his voice that the board represents.)
 
Editorials are not to be confused with other items in the paper’s commentary or opinion pages. Those other items in the commentary section are generally called “op-eds”  (shorthand for “opposite editorials”); they represent individual or an organization’s views and not necessarily that of the newspaper.
 
Oh, and be on time.