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Always be the First to Tell Your Own Story

dangerous cyclist boy on the railway in front of the train

Public relations pioneer Ivy Lee was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad when a company train fell from a bridge killing 53 passengers. Lee reported on the accident himself and shared the information with fellow reporters before they could get it elsewhere: it was the first press release. On October 30th, 1906, two days after the wreck, The New York Times published the company statement in full.

More than a century later, companies still share information with reporters, but what happens when their statements come later than Lee’s did? Reporters will still use the official statements, but sometimes contrasting them with updated information makes it look as if there’s something to hide. Consider how The Wall Street Journal used Facebook statements in their investigation of the company’s own internal research.

Making a statement

– Reporter: Here’s a chart titled “playdates as a growth lever.”

– Statement: The language was an insensitive way to pose a serious question.

– Reporter: There’s a chart from early 2021 describing products targeting children ages 0 to 4.

– Statement: The chart outlines the stages of child development for internal discussion.

– Reporter: This other chart says, “We make body image problems worse for 1 in 3 girls.”

– Statement: The primary motivation for this project has always been and will continue to be safety.

The Facebook Files, Part 5: The Push To Attract Younger Users, The Journal Podcast

To be fair, it must have been hard to come up with updated information for a reporter working with a giant trove of internal documents which you at the company might not have yourself. Imagine you get that call from the reporter and that’s when you find out they have these documents. What would you tell them?

Documents? What documents?

This is the backstory: a whistleblower collected the Facebook documents and gave them to The Wall Street Journal, but you would only learn the name and role of the person later. You’re tempted to think of something smart to say that will defuse the situation, and as we’ve discussed here, that’s just the wrong thing to focus on. What you really want to think about is what to do.

The reporter has told you they will continue publishing the information in the documents in bits and pieces in the coming weeks, and your CEO is already famous for giving apology after apology without changing much. You don’t want to apologize every week for months. Once you figure out where the information is coming from, you could try to reproduce the reporter’s document set, but that would take time.

In the meantime, the whistleblower has revealed her identity on national television, has given testimony in Congress and in the UK Parliament, and has organized the release of the documents to an international group of media outlets.  Her planning chops are such that a different reporter has compared her release of your information to the invasion of Normandy in WWII.

Please hold

Your crisis plan has a series of “holding statements” on the topics most likely to cause trouble, but this case shows the limits of such plans. Different to press releases, holding statements are answers you prepare in advance of a crisis to ask the public to hold on to their questions while you report on the issue. Premade statements without any new information can only help you while better reporting is not publicly available. After that, they will backfire.

Once more information is out, you need to be the first to accept it, even when bad. Be grateful for the work done to tell your story for you and be quick to accept criticism. When your business is bigger than that of all your critics combined, it should not be hard to show some grace.

As you release new information, make sure to connect it to past events so that people paying attention can see you learn from your critics. Some things you did were not effective, but others did work out well. You know your business best and your next decisions prove it.

Bad time to go “Meta”

No matter what you do, remember you’re not the victim. Being in the news does not qualify as suffering and does not compare to some of the problems you created for the public, even if unintended. Stay focused on your critics instead of your crazy fans:

No doubt things are harder for you today than they were for Ivy Lee when he rushed to the site of that train wreck over a hundred years back. He didn’t have to deal with social media. On the other hand, if you have the goods The New York Times will still publish your statement in full. Make sure it moves your story forward instead of sideways.