President Donald Trump’s press secretary – Sean Spicer – is making almost as much news as his boss with an approach to journalists entirely in keeping with his name. But is it a good idea to be as aggressive with the media as he has been in his first fortnight?
It’s possible that his attitude has been a deliberate tactic to make the Trump administration’s complaints about the media a major issue, and feed scepticism about their reporting, in which case he won’t much care about journalists’ feelings. But that will not be the case for the average business or organisation.
Journalists are generally not wilting flowers, although there are plenty of young, inexperienced reporters – especially those without journalism training – who may find an angry PR or partner intimidating. But in the main they are prepared to give as good as they get and there is nothing wrong with having a robust relationship, although this can take time to develop as it needs to be built on some measure of respect.
Naked aggression or scorn, however, is dangerous, particularly if you still need that journalist to get your message across. Not unlike lawyers, journalists don’t take well to being told what to do, and have the tools to get their own back. I’m not suggesting they would intentionally be malicious, but they have the power to ignore your stories, put different slants on them, and so on.
More than anything, they usually have the last word – see this CNN response to Spicer’s claim that the travel ban isn’t a ban. And as the Daily Mail article below shows, they will sometimes play the man, not the ball.
In 21 years as a journalist, I’ve had a handful of over-heated exchanges with lawyers or PR people, usually because they were not happy that I was asking a particular question or writing a particular story. It didn’t stop those stories happening.
However, such displays of anger can make a journalist more careful in what they write if they know how closely it will be read. The possibility of legal action is naturally more real when dealing with lawyers.
If you are angry after the event, you’ll need convincing reasons why the story was wrong and needs correcting. Journalists don't want to get things wrong, but like most people don't like admitting mistakes either. The real disputes are often on matters of opinion, rather than fact, making it much harder to force corrections.
I’m not saying you have to roll over for journalists. Of course you don’t. It’s entirely up to you whether you co-operate. You may simply not like dealing with journalists. You may not give a hoot what is written about you, especially if it is in some minor publication, although the Internet does have a way of dredging it up anyway.
Just ask yourself whether it’s worth picking the fight. It may be that it is. But then maybe this is a time to suck it up. Remember that it is not all about you - the journalist has their feelings of pride and professionalism too, and they will seek to protect them just as fiercely as you will.
My golden rule for dealing with the media is that, like everything in life, it is all about relationships.
New White House press secretary Sean Spicer's angry tirade against White House reporters on his first day on the job wasn't his first clash with the press: while in student government he brought a complaint against his college paper after it called him 'Sean Sphincter.' The 1993 article, which was uncovered by DailyMail.com, offers the first confrontation in what may prove to be contentious relations with the 'dishonest media' despised by Spicer's boss, President Donald Trump.