In this era of pervasive distrust, PR pros and company leaders struggle to deliver authenticity in their messaging.
“What’s the job of the president of the United States?” veteran journalist Bob Woodward asked industry professionals as the keynote speaker at the PRSA International Conference on Sunday, Oct. 10, in San Diego.
He might well have asked: What is the job of any top executive?
“The job of the president,” Woodward said, “is to establish what the next stage of good is for the majority of the country.” That’s how he defines leadership—a sacred duty for the commander-in-chief, but a top priority for all leaders.
Woodward, the investigative journalist who along with colleague Carl Bernstein chronicled the Watergate scandal, shared the lessons he has learned about storytelling, the truth and public trust in a career of covering White House triumphs and travails.
His contention to PR pros and journalists alike: It’s more important than ever to show up and to interact directly with people.
Echoes of Watergate
The current political climate, in which misinformation and distrust abound, is nothing new, Woodward said. The tools we use to analyze information, such as digital and social media, have evolved, but powerful figures, including President Richard Nixon, have long attacked the press and other revered institutions.
“A president needs to hold political and moral authority,” he said. “Nixon lost both.”
Why should PR pros examine the communication foibles of a presidency? Many pros will never work in the White House—yet the Executive Branch is an example for many top bosses and often sets the tone for leadership.
Transparency in messaging is crucial; its absence fosters distrust. Look no further than how the lack of press briefings appears to be catching on.
Woodward also offered thoughts about our new media climate. “Anyone can be ground into dust,” he said, “fairly or unfairly.” Given the dangers the nation faces, he said, it’s never been more important to find common ground with people with whom we disagree.
He paraphrases novelist Graham Greene, saying: “Don’t let the other side become the enemies. They have a case, and you must listen.”
How hubris and haste breed animosity
Self-importance can undermine your message, whether you write for a newspaper or for a major corporation. “We have a lot of work to do in the media,” Woodward said. “We have departed from the facts.”
He also conceded that journalists make mistakes, noting that the constant drive for new stories and information in the 24/7 news cycle can lead to sensationalism.
“We need to find a way to take the emotions out of this,” he says. That requires a more extensive adjustment. “We have to find a new way to think about things.”
Woodward said we are at a “pivot point in history”—a sentiment echoed by many over the remainder of the conference. However, he said the coinage “fake news” is nothing new to American life.
It’s a time-honored PR tactic to focus on the conduct of news outlets instead of the conduct of a client or principal. However, he argued that PR pros have to eschew these tactics to preserve their ability to reach audiences.
He said PR pros must consider that they while represent their clients, they also represent the news industry: “Great PR pros I’ve known realize that the media is just as much of a client.”
‘I need your help’
He told the story of a four-star general who had been refusing to speak with him—until Woodward appeared on his doorstep one evening. By showing up and developing a relationship with the general, he said, he got unprecedented access to tell an important story.
He said this can be good for PR pros looking to tell their story, and he shared tips for PR pros looking for a reporter with whom to partner.
“You need to find somebody who will listen, do it in person, will do multiple interviews, treat them seriously,” he said. “You will serve not only your client, but the media.”
He shared the four most potent words for getting a source of other potential partner to open up: “I need your help.”
As a PR pro, you will have to judge whether helping a reporter will be a net positive for you.
Personal interaction is crucial for PR pros handling difficult topics, he said. When preparing to write his book “The Agenda” about Bill Clinton’s presidency, Woodward was bowled over by the former president’s intense eye contact and careful speech.
“He focuses on you. He gives paragraph answers,” Woodward said. “After a while I thought: ‘Wow, he realizes how brilliant my questions are.’” That magnetism, Woodward realized later, masked Clinton’s “mush” responses to those “brilliant” questions.
For Woodward, that’s where public relations works its magic—in person, between a spokesperson or executive and a reporter.
“Say you represent, let’s take a hard case, Boeing on the 737 Max,” he offers. “You’ve got a big public relations problem … but you also need to explain and answer questions in the press. You’ve got to spend time … and go back and do it personally.”
3 Responses to “Bob Woodward: PR and media relations should go old school”
Exceptionally impressive: although 76-year-old Woodward’s entire career since 1971 has been in journalism not PR, his ideas about PR are endorsed by five of the most brilliant PR executives who’ve ever lived.
WOODWARD: “Transparency in messaging is crucial; it’s absence fosters distrust.”
EDELMAN HEALTH’S SUSAN ISENBEG: “The Edelman Trust Barometer found that globally, being transparent was the most important factor for how healthcare companies can earn and keep trust.” Isenberg wrote this as did the other PR experts quoted here, in O’Dwyer’s magazine of Oct. 2019.
WOODWARD: Go where the power is. “Show up and interact
directly with people. You need to explain and answer questions.
You’ve got to spend time. . .go back and do it personally.”
FINN PARTNERS’ GIL BASHE: “Four decision-making health sectors [are] payers, policy-makers, product innovators and providers. The fifth sector, the one everyone is focused on helping—patients—doesn’t have a reserved set at the policy-making table.”
WOODWARD: We are at a “pivot point in history” [but] “fake news is nothing new to American life.”
PADILLA’S CARRIE YOUNG: “More digital-first outlets mean more opportunities for fake news.” There is “digital domination. Digital media buys this year will officially surpass traditional media ad spending.”
WOODWARD: Talk with, not at, your audience. “You need to explain and answer questions.”
W20 GROUP’S EILEEN O’BRIEN: “It’s simply not enough to push out content on social media. We must be willing to engage in real conversation.”
WOODWARD: Making your case is an opportunity you shouldn’t waste. “Anyone can be ground into dust fairly or unfairly.”
APCO’S FORMER AMERICA’S PRESIDENT RObERT SCHOOLING:
“Choice about whether or not to communicate is no longer optional. Companies need to lean in and make their case. Ducking the discussion only furthers mistaken conclusions.”
What Woodward didn’t say although newspapers have learned it and clients need to know it is that so-called “free media” aren’t really free. “Social media are free,” says Eileen O’Brien, “like a puppy is free.”