4 PR Lessons from the SharesPost / Wall Street Journal Fistfight

If you’re not a habitual rubbernecker of battles between companies and the press, here’s a condensed version of a recent incident that can provide some lessons for all those subject to public scrutiny…which includes just about every individual, institution and company, public or private.

On April 12, the Wall Street Journal published “Meet My Departed Grandma, Fledgling Facebook Investor” in “The Game” column by Dennis K. Berman, who as deputy bureau chief for the Journal’s Money & Investing, is no cub reporter. The column was based on Berman’s assessment of the performance of online broker SharesPost, after posing as a would-be investor using the identity of his long departed grandmother.

Following publication, SharesPost CEO David Weir voiced strong objection to Berman’s column – in a letter to the editor at the Wall Street Journal and through an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign directed at any blog editor willing to listen – focused on the journalistic ethics of Berman’s methods, as well as the accuracy of his reporting. Public controversy has erupted over the piece, prompting insider publications including Columbia Journalism Review to weigh in on Berman’s column.

Here are some lessons other companies can learn from the SharesPost coverage:

The Press Is Not Your Friend – There will always be reporters willing to employ any available means to make a name for themselves.  Journalistic ideals espoused by Edward R. Murrow are long forgotten, and the line between news and entertainment has been blurred for decades. The Wall Street Journal and other media sources are NOT in business to make SharesPost look good…or even to report its (or your) side of the story. They’re simply competing for eyeballs.

Reporters Have Personal Agendas – Failure to recognize that reporters have opinions, prejudices, deadlines, career aspirations, overbearing bosses and overdue credit card bills often results in coverage that’s a big disappointment to those being written about. SharesPost may have been blind-sided by Berman in this story, but for many companies, their refusal to deal honestly and respectfully with a reporter can yield unpleasant results.

You Need To Suck It Up – SharesPost claimed that Berman’s column was one-sided and left out key facts, but CEOs are rarely objective and often thin-skinned with respect to the opinion of any outsider. More importantly, readers often have little interest in and pay much less attention to negative coverage than what’s imagined by the offended party. If you’re running an upstanding business, taking an occasional negative shot will not sink your ship.

It Can Pay to Make a Stink – Although SharesPost is unlikely to receive corrections, a retraction or an apology from the Wall Street Journal, its CEO was correct in making a public stink about Berman’s column. In this viral age, when the shelf-life of media coverage appears to be unlimited, it’s important to have your point of view on the record. But before you take that step, make sure your appeal is based on hard-nosed facts rather than ego or opinion, or you’ll be digging an even deeper hole.

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