Getting your company featured in a news article or broadcast segment can be a great way to gain exposure, but what if the piece shows your company in a negative light? Suddenly, what was expected to be a cause for celebration takes an unwelcome turn, and your well-intended efforts bring harm to your company and brand.

Most media opportunities produce positive outcomes. It is the rare occasion when an article does not go as planned--but those occasions often leave the most lasting impression. The key to guarding against such a worst-case scenario is to approach public relations as you would any other business opportunity: Do your research, weigh the benefits and go in prepared.

Gauging the Reward
First, consider the value that your company or organization would derive from exposure in the press. Key questions: What audience does the outlet reach and how much visibility does the coverage potentially offer? Many publications provide a copy of their media kit online, and these often include details on audience size (circulation, viewers, page views, etc).

It's also important to look beyond the numbers and weigh the value of the audience of the publication (quality over quantity). Does this platform reach your target customer, investors, employees, business partners? A niche trade or enthusiast publication may have a small circulation, but a greater percentage of its audience may be more responsive to your product or service.

Hedging the Risk
It's crucial to your media preparation to gather intelligence on the reporter. Visit the publication website and search for past articles. If it's a freelance journalist, see if he or she has a website and find out where his work has been published. Get a sense of the reporter's style and tone. Do articles tend to be positive, neutral or negative? If the reporter has previously written investigative pieces that are critical of the business's practices or company in general, this may be a red flag.

Before the interview, ask the reporter for the scope of the story and sample questions or a list of topics that will be discussed. Also, it's worth asking who else they plan to interview for the article, although reporters might not be willing to divulge this information.

Another important consideration is to learn the publication's expectations for the story. Different media opportunities have different risk/reward profiles:

  • Pay-for-plays and advertorials: These are always positive, but often the purported reach is inflated and may not be worth the cost--both in money and time.

    Potential Risk: Low
    Potential Reward: Low to moderate
  • Bylined articles: Trade and industry publications often feature submissions from industry experts (you're reading such an example). If you have an opportunity to contribute a bylined article, this is a great way to control the message and position yourself and organization as an industry thought leader. However, most publications will not allow companies to promote products or services in a bylined article. Rather, the selling point is your expertise.

    Potential Risk: Low
    Potential Reward: Moderate to high
  • Coverage in print and online media: When considering a print or online media opportunity, focus on the beat that the reporter covers. This can tell you much about the potential risk of a story--a business reporter is likely to ask tough questions, while a lifestyle piece is more apt to be upbeat and light.

    In either case, you will only have marginal control over the finished piece. Reporters are expected to accurately portray the facts and use quotes verbatim; however, the way in which these facts and quotes are arranged (called framing) can significantly affect how the story is perceived. More often than not, reporters will strive for a balanced article, but there are no guarantees that the final product will meet your expectations. The best approach is to prepare for all contingencies and outcomes prior to the interview or when the story is published.

    Potential Risk: Low to moderate
    Potential Reward: High
  • Blogs: While blogs can be an excellent way to engage an audience, it's important to remember that bloggers have different standards and styles than traditional reporters, which allows them to be freer with their opinions--both positive and negative. As such, it is imperative to be deeply familiar with the blogger and her audience. Pay close attention to the tone of previous blog posts, and be sure to look at the comments section to see if there is an active and passionate audience.

    Potential Risk: Moderate to high
    Potential Reward: High
  • Broadcast and online video: With print interviews, you have ample time to consider your responses; with broadcast, you are on the spot. And if the broadcast is live, there are no second takes.

    Before agreeing to a broadcast opportunity, think about your comfort level on camera and how you might react if you get hit with a tough question. Despite the potential for reaching a mass audience, if you are nervous on camera or are concerned that your interview may include difficult questions, the best bet is to walk away. However, if you're committed to the opportunity, spend the money and hire a media trainer who will guide you through mock interviews and coach you on responses. Again, broadcast journalists strive to be balanced. However, there are no guarantees that this will occur every time. Preparation is the key.

    Potential Risk: Moderate to high
    Potential Reward: High to Very high

When Reporters Dig for Dirt
If a reporter calls you directly and catches you off-guard with a story, a good rule of thumb is to see if he would like to schedule an interview to discuss the subject. Get as many details about the story as you can, and then research the reporter's work and assess the risk.

Keep in mind that when a reporter calls, they could be working on an investigative report about your organization, your industry or one of your competitors. In this case, you have to ask yourself an additional question: What is the risk of not getting your side of the story heard? Sometimes "no comment" is truly the safest response; however, "no comment" can also be perceived as an admission of guilt. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for determining the risk/reward of this situation. It depends on the specific circumstances.

Most media opportunities lead to positive outcomes, but there are no guarantees, and big rewards often carry big risks. If your organization can benefit from the exposure, just relax, do your homework and be prepared to answer any tough questions that come your way.