Fighting Back Against a National Broadcast Investigative Hit Piece

Challenge

A highly rated, nationally broadcast investigative program was planning to air a damaging story about a client relying solely on allegations from lawsuits that had been thrown out, settled or were currently being disputed. Much of the information they had gathered over a period of months was factually inaccurate or misleading, and many of their sources lacked credibility. The investigative program was also using aggressive tactics to try to get company representatives on camera, including sending a multiple-camera team to ambush interview the CEO at a community event and working to gain access to an industry conference that several executives were attending.   

Solution

Hillenby developed a comprehensive media strategy to hold the investigative program accountable and mitigate the negative impact on the client to the greatest extent possible.

Open Communication: We maintained regular contact with the investigative program’s team throughout the process to ensure that we were gathering as much information as possible and underscoring the client’s commitment to provide responsive information. We made sure that every interaction was in writing, even following up phone conversations with recap emails to preserve a record of what was discussed.

Information Transparency: While the investigative team insisted that they wanted an on-camera interview, we requested inquiries in writing. When they were slow to produce information and vague in what was provided, even going so far as to state that it was their policy not to provide written questions, we began copying the appropriate editorial leadership and legal counsel from the network. This ensured the production team and their superiors collectively understood our need to have complete information to respond to and the consequences of failing to provide that information.

Legal Risk: Along with copying the legal counsel, we incorporated certain language into our correspondence with the news outlet that introduced the concept of legal risk. This messaging underscored the seriousness with which we were prepared to defend the factual accuracy of the piece and how the client was characterized. Bringing legal action against a media outlet should always be a last result for a number of reasons, but foreshadowing the possibility can instill a higher level of accountability to the reporting process.

Detailed Responses: In many instances, the instinct for communications professionals is to provide media responses in concise, quotable sound bites. However, in this case, we provided detailed responses to each one of the program’s allegations to emphasize the amount of evidence that contradicted their claims. We also provided information discrediting some of their sources. The goal of providing this level of detail was to create an overwhelming body of evidence to show their deficiencies in factual accuracy and reporting standards.

Ambush Training: We were aware that one of the tactics of this investigative team was ambush interviews, so we prepared executives and frontline employees for what to look for, situations to avoid and messaging to address such a situation. When the CEO was actually ambushed at a community event, he was as prepared as possible for what can be an unnerving situation and successfully managed the situation.

Results

Because of our aggressive media strategy, the investigative report has been indefinitely delayed and likely dropped. This is an extraordinary result especially when considering the significant amount of time and effort that was invested in the piece by both producers and on-air talent. While this is one specific example of this strategy, our team has had similar successes with every national television network, investigative cable news programs and several other print, digital and broadcast outlets, including hardline activist media.

Client Testimonials

“The [client] team, myself, and many others are aware of all the good things that you’re doing. I would encourage you to continue to do the right things and do things right.” - Client Board Member and Former Corporate Executive

“I should … commend you and the team for the guidance provided to us [regarding the ambush]. You gave very sound advice.” - Client Board Member and Prominent Attorney