When a journalist asks you to violate a trust
We sometimes hear about journalists who protect their sources.
One of the most high-profile, relatively recent examples is Judith Miller, who at the time was a reporter with The New York Times. Miller spent 85 days in jail after defending her right to protect her confidential sources in what became known as the “Valerie Plame Affair.”
Valerie Plame, the wife of a U.S. ambassador, had been outed as a CIA operative in 2003 by Robert Novak, a journalist with the Washington Post. Miller reported on the story and a related investigation, and then found herself in the middle of it. When she refused to reveal her sources she accepted the consequences.
Still, it is quite rare for most journalists to find themselves in Miller’s position.
What is far more common is when journalists ask public relations professionals to reveal their confidential information.
To be absolutely clear, there is a difference between handling sensitive subject matter in the normal course of the day, and when the PR representative is truly put on the spot.
It’s common for public relations representatives to face questions about certain sensitive matters like current sales numbers or the status of a merger announcement that has already been announced. This falls within the norm of public relations work.
But every now and then, a reporter may learn of something through his or her contacts that could be a game-changer, something the organization just isn’t ready to discuss. All that the reporter may need is clarification, more detail or official confirmation on what may have already been leaked. This involves a higher degree of care and attention.
Let’s say you are the PR rep who gets a call from a reporter who has heard about your organization making plans to shut down one of its local operations and relocate it out of state. She tells you her sources are reliable and she just wants you to confirm it or not.
Oh, and one more thing, she’s on deadline.
Here’s what you know:
The reporter’s information sounds reliable. In fact, you’ve already been in meetings on this. You helped with a preliminary draft press release. But there is one key fact – nothing has been finalized. Legal documents have not been signed. Arrangements are not in place. Some big decisions have yet to be made that could change everything. Things are in a state of flux.
In other words, nothing is ready for public disclosure.
Meanwhile, a curious reporter waits for a response. Before you utter a word, here are some things to consider:
- Know that if you have been privy to any confidential information on the matter, this in itself may be confidential and should not be disclosed.
- Do not confirm anything the reporter says on the spot. It’s not your role, and it could be seriously irresponsible to do so.
- Do not deny anything the reporter says on the spot. That could be misleading.
- Do not say simply, “No comment,” because that could be erroneously interpreted as confirmation.
So what can you say?
The first thing to do is tell the reporter you will check things out on your end, and that you cannot immediately verify anything she just told you. Remind her that the information she is seeking is something the organization takes very seriously and will give it proper and responsible attention before responding. Then, promise to get back to her.
Once you do that, you have some quick work to do because the reporter can run with the story without your input, creating confusion if any of the information is inaccurate, or based on rumor and speculation.
Take these steps:
- Immediately notify everyone on your senior management team and in the organization who needs to be involved in decision-making for a response.
- Communicate to the team very clearly everything the reporter already has heard.
- Identify the accuracies and inaccuracies in what the reporter has heard. Determine what important facts may be missing from the reporter’s current understanding of story.
- Then have an internal discussion on what can be revealed at the moment, and what simply can’t be confirmed publicly while still adhering to policy, legal and regulatory constraints.
Each situation is different, but there are some common strategies to consider. First, you will need to determine if it’s best to move up your public announcement.
After carefully considering this option, it may be determined that it would be premature to make a full or partial disclosure. Even so, you still need to respond in some fashion to the reporter.
A written statement may be better than a return call. This helps avoid any confusion over what is communicated and it allows senior management, attorneys and other members of the team to carefully consider every word to be communicated. An alternative approach is for the organization to select a spokesperson who is well-versed on all of the issues involved, has the required credibility and authority on the subject matter, and can be relied upon to stay on point.
Of course, there is the content of the message itself. A good starting point is at the high level. Focus on policies and processes in place for handling communications around this type of situation. In that way you can make it clear why your organization may or may not comment on certain aspects of what could amount to nothing more than hearsay at this time.
If there are any false or misleading rumors or speculation that can be addressed and dispelled do so. Speak to any other specifics or details as appropriate and possible.
Then let the journalist know how you plan to handle any further developments should circumstances change.
In other words, let the reporter know you are doing everything within your control to help while remaining true to all existing legal, ethical and governance policies.
Have you ever been in a sticky situation like this with a journalist? Share your experiences with @muckrack on Twitter.
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.
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