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A Pastor and Biased Media

Posted By Ronn Torossian On May 28, 2012 @ 12:07 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 71 Comments

Owning a PR Agency, we represent a client, a preacher with a large church and following, including on television, and I challenge him every single time he wants to do secular media interviews. I fight him every step of the way because this minister feels in his heart that people are naturally good and fair-minded, and if they hear what he has to say, he will win them over. Problem is, neither he nor I are going to write and edit the final story, and the media has a certain picture of him they don’t want to change.

I remember fighting off a producer from 60 Minutes on behalf of another religious ministry. The producer “threatened” not to call me again for an interview with this client if I didn’t grant this one (the show had been asking for an interview for a long while). My response was, “Is that a promise?” I wanted him to assure me he wouldn’t call again, but he thought he was threatening me. Really, though, we were on the same page.

This particular client is better off without 60 Minutes. We don’t need to do an interview that we know from the get-go will be hostile and won’t score points for our client. When we want to do an interview for this client, we’ll be better off doing it with Fox News or a Christian broadcaster, for example, where the odds would be in our favor for a fairer outcome. At any rate, both of these outlets reach the client’s core audience more frequently than 60 Minutes does.

I had a similar situation involving a reporter from a daily newspaper who had dogged a client, the head of a church, for a year. She was a religion reporter who also happened to be a member of a church diametrically opposed to everything my client’s church stands for. We knew that someone from inside our client’s church who had an ax to grind was feeding the reporter rumors and information—some true, most not. The things that were true were made to sound scandalous when, in fact, they weren’t. It was doubtful the reporter would give the pastor we were representing a fair shake.

In fact, given the tone of the reporter’s questions, and the questions themselves (which centered around his finances and success), it was clear she had already made up her mind about my client and wanted to set about “proving” a set of nasty preformed beliefs she had about him. Part of her point of view was that spiritual or religious people are doing something unethical and dishonest if they are financially successful. At issue, in the reporter’s mind at least, was the pastor’s alleged “lavish lifestyle.” He is a successful minister, writer, and speaker, and leads a large congregation, which he had grown quite successfully. The reporter had a problem with someone being successful and spiritual (and made her position on this clear in discussions we had).

Once she makes that assumption for readers, it’s clear which angle her story will take. (I also believe that on some psychological level it bothered her that a pastor was making more money than she was.)

I vividly remember a discussion I had with that client about shopping. A family member of the pastor had visited a local furniture store and purchased a few thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise, which the person had paid for with her own money, so there was certainly no wrongdoing. However, the shopping “spree” became a lead story in the pastor’s city. I recommended that the pastor tell his family that if they wanted to buy things they shouldn’t do it a few minutes from their home, where people could be watching and talking. It’s not a question of doing something wrong; it’s a question of perception. Be discreet and drive an hour away to shop. Once you have “made it,” your every move is highlighted and noticed, and even if you don’t know everyone, they all know you.

The reporter’s story didn’t uncover any legal improprieties, but it did create fodder for the town gossip mill since it presented, in tabloid fashion, the supposedly indulgent lifestyle the pastor and his family enjoyed. It led to blog postings, and local TV and newspaper stories as well.

Sometimes in the work we do as a crisis PR agency, it’s necessary to counter every accusation. There was nothing the pastor could have said to win this reporter over or persuade her to present the pastor’s side of the story fairly, but we were able to minimize the damage. Ultimately, our efforts resulted in a story that was 20 percent negative instead of 90 percent, which we considered a victory. Unfortunately, many reporters (this one included) have an agenda that affects the kind of story they write. Often, part of the agenda can be to destroy successful people with whom the reporter disagrees.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a great Jewish leader, had the following great quote in 1932:

A newspaper is a grand thing. There is no labor of higher worth than that of the journalist, whether he writes instructional articles or reports on a robbery that took place yesterday in the slums. Like the function of the blood circulating through the body, or like the function of commerce in the international market, so is the function of journalism in the realm of the spirit…Who were the first to teach us to always interfere in matters that are not ours, to judge people and nations, even though we were never chosen for the position of judge? The work of the publicist is a legacy from the Prophets of Israel…Our passion is to speak, to proclaim—“Shouting” is what the same audience calls it, ‘we have no need for words, give us actions.’ One thing that audience forgets is that speech is also an action – Perhaps the most authentic of all other actions.

The above is an excerpt from “For Immediate Release,” a PR book by Ronn Torossian which may be purchased here.

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