It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. That’s all well and good, until you read a news article that purports to be objective, and you wonder if the journalist has been snake-charmed? The impact of personal relationships between members of the media and business people is one of the most controversial aspects of journalism. Economist Joseph Stiglitz said the media were ‘active cheerleaders’ for the 2008 financial crisis. By spending too much time with the people they wrote about, the Nobel Prize winner believes journalists were swayed and blinded. As he puts it, ‘cognitively captured.’

Perhaps it’s time, however, for a cool assessment of how inter-personal relationships affect news coverage, and how they should be conducted.

In my research, I interviewed some of South Africa’s most influential journalists and editors about the impact of relationships, especially in a crisis. They confirmed that executives could get away with handling relationships poorly when profits were high (in general, success is more newsworthy than bad behaviour).  But when a crisis hit, the quality of relationships with journalists would be tested in the fire. As one colleague put it:

“If you can prove to me over time that I can trust you, that you’re believable, that you’re stand up, when your company is in crisis, I will tend to believe what you tell me. If you’ve been ducking and weaving…when the sh**t hits the fan, I will go into that story looking for proof that you’re lying, as opposed to assuming that you’re telling the truth.”

As a CEO, when it comes to your company’s reputation management, some things are in your control and some things not. Recent research for her GIBS MBA thesis by business media personality Francis Herd confirms that your relationship with the media is most certainly one of the things firmly in your grasp, with far-reaching consequences.

My study also suggests that CEOs who are viewed as strong, ethical leaders by journalists can have a ‘halo’ effect, meaning they can raise the tone of coverage, even when they’re not being quoted directly. And this can act as a mitigating factor in a crisis.  Some research suggests that companies with ethical CEOs perform better on the stock market, and it makes sense they can attract better press coverage as well.

Journalists interact daily with business leaders and view companies from a closer vantage point than the public enjoys. So the establishment of personal relationships is inevitable. If you don’t manage them and journalists form adverse perceptions, they could become the ghostwriters behind your company’s obituary.

It’s not only the public interactions that count, but the full spectrum of contacts, including phone calls, meetings and chats during broadcast ad breaks. These are ‘off the record,’ not necessarily because they’re secret, but because, usually, they’re not that newsworthy. It’s also about the gossip your behaviour creates. Right now there are journalists sharing drinks and trading open secrets about CEOs and other business leaders that they can’t prove or report upon – yet. In future, I believe that direct correlations will be found between rudeness, reputation and the quality of coverage. But for now the evidence is mostly anecdotal.

 In building relationships, the journalists I spoke to emphasized that honesty was important, as well as professional respect. There is a way of speaking to journalists that respects our role in holding business to account. You can’t expect the deference you’re used to in the office. And you can’t take things personally and retaliate. If you are consistently defensive and aggressive, you will alienate the people whose understanding ear you will need desperately when things go wrong.

One of the brightest examples of a CEO mitigating a crisis involved Bidvest’s Brian Joffe. An editor said that, in a sense, due to his reputation, the company received a ‘free pass’ after Joffe’s Bidvest aggressively upped its stake in Adcock Pharmaceuticals, even though it turned out that Bidvest had massively over-estimated the company’s prospects and paid dearly for it. In the editor’s assessment it should have been splashed across the front pages with horror headlines and scathing commentary, but journalists held back, waiting to see what Joffe would do next.

The reaction to Joffe was likely not informed only by his reputation as a dealmaker, but the humility he shows when interacting with journalists. When I interviewed Joffe in the wake of the deal, he was frank and open.  He basically said:  “I messed up.” He was willing to answer the same question as many times as it was asked.   

Increasingly, as CEO, you will be the spokesperson in a crisis. Leslie Gaines Ross has pointed out that the reputation of CEOs affect a significant portion of a company’s reputation (45%) and, in a crisis, the main responsibility is often attributed to the CEO (60%). Colleagues I spoke to not only respected leaders who were willing to face the music, but also expected them to. In broadcasting – my world - that means agreeing to live interviews and pitching up on time.

If all this sounds simple and intuitive, it should be. And yet, so many companies are employing otherwise brilliant CEOs that have no clue how to deal with the press. Cell C’s CEO was accessible before the company’s ‘Billboard Saga’, at which point he became extremely camera shy. The ripple effects will continue for his entire tenure. In future, whenever Cell C releases good news, journalists will want to dismiss it, remembering the boss who was too cowardly to face the bad. The man at the top has single handedly rubbed out PR budgets, past and future.

When an FNB employer went mad on Twitter, joking about bombs and disability, the company released an apologetic statement, but CEO Jacques Celliers wasn’t doing interviews. That earned the scorn of radio personality Bruce Whitfield, who compared him unfavourably to his predecessor, Michael Jordaan. Whitfield has more Twitter followers than FNB and Cilliers combined. Have you noticed a difference in FNB’s coverage since the change at the top? I certainly have.

The findings echo research across branding, marketing, PR and reputation management that suggests that companies and people forge relationships that aren’t very different from ordinary, interpersonal ones. And it means that a crisis cannot be viewed in isolation. When damaging claims are being made about a lover or a friend, their previous patterns of behaviour, the trust they have earned or forfeited, will affect how quickly you jump to conclusions and lay blame. And whether you’ll forgive, condemn or just walk away. In the same way, companies with a strong reputation before a crisis suffer less when the crisis hits and their stock prices rebound more quickly.

This simply must be linked to media coverage. We know that due to the media ‘agenda-setting’ effect, people are more likely to be influenced by the way journalists interpret and package events, than the way the company does. In a crisis many companies have to respond to the media ‘frame.’ And yet, in much of the research thus far, the focus has been on the relationship with the public, while the closer relationship between journalists and company officials has largely been ignored. Testing has mostly been used to determine how members of the public react to statements released by companies. Theorists have admitted, however, that it is journalists who will decide how to reflect these statements; what to include, and what to leave out.

In contrast to Stiglitz, another academic, Dane Claausen, argues that, with ‘citizen journalism’ rising, meaning anyone with a computer or smartphone can write blogs and have a say - it is precisely personal, one-on-one relationships that help to define credible journalism: “Real journalists practicing real journalism cannot effectively serve as an independent monitor of power if they do not have knowledge of those in power, and a working relationship with the powerful so as to ask them questions.”

Isn’t it up to you, as CEO, to ensure those working relationships are in good order?