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The horseshoe theory of media coverage
A hit piece is distinct from bad press. All startups get bad press at some point – and sometimes it’s deserved. If a company is struggling, misguided, or doing something they shouldn’t, bad press can result from good journalists simply doing their jobs in reporting the facts. The WSJ coverage of Theranos is an example of the media rightly exposing a crooked company, and I’m thankful to live in a society where a free press can hold anyone accountable.
In contrast, hit pieces happen when prejudiced reporters target good companies with deliberately misleading coverage that’s intended to get clicks, plant innuendo, or cause damage more than to report news. It’s often because a company, in the process of creating something new, has threatened a sacred status quo or violated an ideological dogma held by the reporter. Hit pieces are, as a result, more likely to target mission-driven companies, which tend to take strong and sometimes contrarian positions that snub the Current Thing.
These attacks can be deeply personal. When you’re a leader at a startup, hit pieces aren’t just criticizing your company’s earnings or policies, they’re deriding your life’s work. They might insult your ability, integrity, gender, intelligence, politics, relationships, and appearance.
But the good news is that hit pieces can backfire and even work to your advantage. Every startup is a kind of insurgent, struggling against the status quo and the powerful entrenched interests that defend it. One of the most common insurgent tactics is to make up for a disadvantage in numbers and resources by eroding the legitimacy of the regime. When the regime overreaches and cracks down, the insurgents can benefit.
Similarly, for a startup battling uphill against the mainstream, bad press can be good – if it’s bad enough.
Introducing the horseshoe theory of media coverage
Here’s what I think of as the horseshoe theory of media coverage:
In general, good press is good, and bad press is bad. In a future post, we’ll discuss how to land the former and mitigate the latter.
This, for example, is classic good press.
But on the extremes, they start to converge.
Overly fawning coverage sets you up for eye rolls and skepticism. It can paint a target on you, challenging others to take the shine off. So be wary if the media puffs you up too much, because when it comes to company story arcs, puff comes before the fall.
Conversely, a really bad hit piece is often too cartoonishly prejudiced to do real damage. Overtly dishonest and unfair attacks invite ridicule of their authors and win you sympathy by making you look calm and reasonable by comparison.
Here’s what that looks like:
When the sneering indignation reaches a certain point on the Regina George scale, a hit piece becomes so self-beclowning that it pushes rational observers to your side.
So what can you do to turn it to your advantage?
Start with employees
When a hit piece drops, the first thing to do is to address it inside the company, ideally with a touch of humor. Keep it light, don’t be this guy.
There are some important reasons to establish a norm of openly acknowledging and laughing off ridiculous attacks:
That type of transparency sets an expectation inside the company that you don’t hide the bad stuff from the team, and it avoids the intrigue of people sharing the piece through whisper networks;
It’s an opportunity to debunk the accusations directly before they can start to raise questions;
People take cues from the top. You want employees to see that it doesn’t faze you and it shouldn’t faze them either;
This is key: you want to immediately start building up internal antibodies to external attacks. Startups need a culture of thick skin and resilience, setting a tone of wry insouciance because you know something the rest of the world doesn’t understand yet. You can do this with humility, because self assurance doesn’t mean arrogance. The reality is that mission-driven companies will always face attacks from doubters and haters, and you’ll never regret having created a culture of resilience. That will pay off a million times over as the company grows.
Externally, you can always ignore a hit piece and rob it of oxygen that way. However, if the piece really goes too far, an alternative is to make an example of it. This route is obviously higher risk / higher reward, and you shouldn’t do it too frequently lest it lose impact. Pick your battles and save your energy for lightning strikes as opposed to seeming to whine about every negative press mention.
If you do decide to issue a public response, you’ll need to do it in a way that:
is likely to actually work;
doesn’t reward the article with clicks, i.e., use screenshots instead of links or QTs;
stays on the high road – a lot depends on the tone and execution here.
As you consider how to proceed, here are the strategic objectives to aim for:
Activate third-party supporters who can contest these and future charges with more credibility than if you did it yourself;
Use the incident to strengthen conviction among your true believers and bind them closer to your shared cause, the same way dissidents can grow their ranks in the wake of an unjustified regime crackdown;
Establish deterrence by sending a signal to would-be authors of future hit jobs that you are willing to shine a public spotlight on untrue attacks.
A recent case study
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
Earlier this year, a freelancer writing for Wired alleged that Substack “recruits and pays extremists.” This writer apparently felt he didn’t even have to put in the bare minimum effort to prove such a wild statement. When my colleague emailed him about it, he didn’t share any supporting evidence, instead demanding that we supply documentation to exonerate ourselves from his baseless charge. It really was like accusing someone of money laundering and asking for their financial records to disprove the allegation.
I ended up making our case publicly, amplified by a lot of other people including heavy hitters, and it resulted in Wired issuing a correction and deleting their tweets promoting the article.
It was a minor scuffle, but I got a lot of questions about it because it combined some of the top things you’re not supposed to do in corporate comms: repeat an accusation, amplify bad press, and fight someone who buys ink by the barrel. People asked if getting a correction was worth the risk and hassle.
In fact, getting the correction was not the goal.
The correction was appreciated and felt like a small victory for truth and fairness, but I would have been happy with the outcome even if Wired had never acquiesced. The real goal was to do what I described above: reveal the bad faith of people who are attacking you, in order to strengthen employee resolve, rally your supporters, and win the hearts and minds of moderate observers.
As I mentioned, going public is not always the right approach, but I believe it was in this case. First, the facts were on our side; we had a strong case and he had none. Second, what he did was shoddy at best and deserved to be challenged both on principle and on substance, especially before innuendo could ossify into perceived fact. Third, this was the kind of blatant overreach that showed how unreasonable and unfounded some of the criticism of Substack could be.
Lastly, I had no interest in working with this writer again. The benefit of deterring future shenanigans from other unscrupulous writers was worth the cost of burning that bridge.
There are three important factors in the success of this tactic:
If you’re going to fight, then fight on your turf. Insurgents fight most effectively on their home turf, where they know the terrain well and have support from the population. You should map the terrain and know where your supporters are. Startups generally are better at the internet than media companies, so take advantage of it. That might mean using your blog, Twitter, group chats, subreddits, Hacker News, podcasts, Discord servers, or other channels where you have home field advantage. Avoid fighting on the media’s territory, with things like letters to the editor. That’s like wading into the river to fight a crocodile. In Substack’s case, our supporters are very online and are formidable on Twitter, which is why I chose to litigate it there.
Have a base of committed supporters. During peacetime, focus on building connection and community with your diehards. When hard times come, you’ll be much more likely to come out on top if you can overwhelm the original accusation with the help of third party advocates who understand you well and can be force multipliers for your message. Then, as discussed above, you can go on to use the attack on you to recruit more supporters to your movement among the sympathetic people who witnessed the exchange and took your side.
Know your audience’s cultural erogenous zones. People won’t necessarily care that you or your company is being attacked, but you can make it relevant to something they do care about. Essentially, you’ll be showing them, “If you care about X issue, then you should care about the attacks on us.” In the example above, I didn’t simply complain that Substack was being disparaged in an article. I made it about journalistic integrity, using “extreme” language to smear ideological opponents, and the unfairness of making accusations without evidence. These themes resonate more deeply with more people and help communicate why this attack is not just Substack’s problem but representative of a broader trend that calls for scrutiny.
Hit pieces happen to all companies at some point, and it especially happens to novel and mission-driven startups that are making a real impact. Don’t be disheartened and don’t let it throw you off course. Steel is forged by fire and, even though it’s counterintuitive, the worst attacks can help strengthen your brand, community, and resolve.
You can’t always prevent a hit piece, but you can hit back.
This is the first in a series of posts about dealing with the media, and it touches on some bigger topics that we didn’t discuss in depth here, including:
How to work with the press
How to not work with the press (going direct)
How to build a loyal following
How to recover from reputation damage
I will try to cover these down the road and, as always, please send me your requests for other topics.
If you’d like to get future posts about media engagement, going direct, and building trust, please join the mailing list.