A frequent question I hear from clients facing unwanted or negative publicity is “how do we get our side of the story out there?” When I ask what isn’t being told in the media, they are usually able to rattle off a list of a half-dozen or more inaccuracies, omissions or perceived bias in the tone of reporting. They’ll often say “It isn’t fair. We explained x, y and z to the reporter, and they just ignored it all.”

These clients almost always have a point. Media coverage is rarely, if ever, truly “fair and balanced.” Reporters are people too, and they are just as influenced by their experience, judgement and opinions as anybody else. Add to that the increasing pressure journalists face in producing quick stories designed to generate web traffic (clicks), social media shares and comments, and you get a recipe for narrow or slanted coverage.

The first thing I counsel clients on is to not take it personally. For those with a strong sense of justice, that can be hard. I try to explain that local reporters don’t usually wake up in the morning thinking of ways they can ruin someone’s business or life. But just like all of us, they have a job to do – and some do it better than others.

We’ve all seen how taking it personally can damage relationships with spouses, family and colleagues. To see how public relations is no different, we only have to look as far as a recent series of stories about the Portland restaurant, Kenny & Zuke’s.

Earlier this month, local columnist Steve Duin published a profile on Brice Clagett, a young Portlander who claimed he could no longer afford to find housing, despite working two jobs. The column focused primarily on Brice, his personal situation and feelings about his economic prospects. The column also made several passing references to his pay at Kenny & Zuke’s, where he had worked for the past two years.

What happened next reveals the dangers of taking it personally.

Immediately following the posting of the column, the owner of Kenny & Zuke’s, Ken Gordon, sent an accusatory and defensive email to the columnist seeking to correct the facts and perceived slights in the story. Duin later revealed a portion of that email:

“He takes home about $1500 per month with tips, plus his other job, and pays about $650 per month in rent. How his (sic) he not making it on that?” Gordon wrote.

“FWIW, he’s the poster boy for disgruntled employees. Needless to say, you could have picked a better subject.”

During the weekend that followed, he went on to engage in a heated (and public) social media exchange over the column, defending his pay practices and attacking the character of his employee, going so far as to claim that Claggett spent “a fairly hefty amount … on cigarettes, pot and alcohol.”

The following Monday, he fired Claggett, and later posted a series of defensive tweets, including one that publicly stated his reason for terminating the employee: “Reasons made clear in imposed probation, which was violated today. Insubordination to mgr, shouting before customers, disruptive behavior.”

Now, many business owners will sympathize with Gordon’s perspectives. Most work hard to build their businesses, serve customers well and deal with myriad government regulations, all the while ensuring their employees continue to receive paychecks. Kenny & Zuke’s, to its credit, pays many of its employees more than the minimum wage while allowing them to collect tips – one of the omissions that clearly irked Gordon.

The blowback was swift and severe, prompting a follow-up column from Duin and social media rage that tainted Kenny & Zuke’s social media assets. Longtime customers announced they would no longer patronize the restaurant, and Gordon instantly lost the “Portland-progressive” credibility he had worked so long to build. While the restaurant – which serves excellent pastrami – will continue to exist, I doubt it will ever be the same.

A better approach would have been to step back and understand the purpose and agendas of the various actors in this saga. Duin? Just writing a column. Claggett? Telling a story about his life as he sees it. Kenny & Zuke’s? Simply a reference point in a story that wasn’t about the restaurant.

My suspicion is that this type of analysis could have not only prevented the blunder that followed, but could have served to enhance the brand of Kenny & Zuke’s within the community. By letting go of defensiveness, the business could have instead approached this issue in solidarity with their employees, many of whom are truly impacted by the rising cost of housing and other living expenses in trendy Portland. It would have prevented them from being the focus of the story.

We all have a sense of justice, and nobody likes to be treated unfairly. But classy people and organizations let go of minor details and perceived slights, earning respect by demonstrating grace. It works in interpersonal relationships, and it works in PR too.

 

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