A Strategic Response to Media Criticism

If you've taken a hit in the media, don't fret, act---according to a study, negative media reports can spark a necessary strategic change.

If you’ve spent any amount of time as a leader, you’ve almost certainly developed a thick skin about criticism from the media. After all, you’ll never please everybody, and taking a bit of flak is part of the job. So whenever a company or organization is publicly criticized in a news outlet, execs generally snap to one of two responses:

1. Ignore it. What does some journalist know about running a staff, balancing a multimillion-dollar budget, or implementing a strategic plan? Maybe they noticed something out of plumb in your annual report or 990, but they’re not appreciating the whole picture!

2. Release the (PR) hounds. If the criticism is strong (and high-profile) enough, it might be time for a counteroffensive: A call to the reporter or letter to the editor clarifying your perspective, or making an end run around the media and reaching out directly to members with your side of the story.

Scrutiny from the press is often the wake-up call for needed change.

Nothing is inherently wrong with either approach, but they’re effectively the same response: Doing what you’ve always done. A tactic that’s more rare is:

3. Recognize the criticism you’ve received as important and integrate it into your next strategic planning conversation.

That’s the suggestion of Strategy + Business magazine, reporting on a study on how media coverage prompts strategic change. Researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Illinois studied 40,000 articles in business publications across five years, finding a link between negative coverage of a company and a subsequent strategic shift. “Negative media coverage about a firm is a salient trigger that suggests to top managers that the current strategy needs to be changed,” says the report (paywalled).

Moreover, the companies that are more likely to pursue strategic changes faster are those whose boards have more outsiders—that is, fewer personally invested people who are more prone to dismiss criticism. Organizations tend to give themselves all sorts of reasons not to fix something, even if it’s broken. But once those problems become news, it’s likely going to be your problem to deal with, regardless of how much you plug your ears. As the article puts it: “CEOs and directors should pay close heed (yet not overreact) to media coverage, the authors write, because scrutiny from the press is often the wake-up call for needed change.”

OK, I’m biased here: I’m a fan of any recommendation that leaders pay more attention to what journalists have to say. But I’m also a fan of any recommendation that leaders take serious criticism seriously: A couple of weeks back I suggested that new leaders get to know their association in part by reading explanations from people who’ve decided to dump their memberships. (The unhappiest ex-members will almost certainly write them.) If, as the title of the research paper suggests, negative media coverage is a “burr under the saddle” that pushes organizations to change, maybe you can build that mindset into your work. With every red flag you see in your performance, ask: What if the most prominent reporter in your industry took that information and ran with it? What would be your response? If the response is still “do nothing,” is it the wisest of the available options? Why?

I trust this doesn’t sound like I’m promoting an attitude of paranoia, that you always have to worry about some negative report about your association’s work. But fact-based critiques of your work from outsiders aren’t easy to come by—and they often can be quite expensive to come by. Why not pay attention when they’re delivered to you for the price of a newspaper?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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