You can’t always prevent a hit piece, but you can hit back. Introducing the horseshoe theory of media coverage.
And when all else fails, pull a tight sweater over your head and start wailing on that cowbell.
Great to hear your commentary on comms strategy and tactics combined with something many of us watched play out in real-time. Fascinating.
Several great observations here, Lulu, and congratulations on launching this platform.
I appreciate the horseshoe model; I think you're right about it. And if we zoom out and take a historic view, we'll see most outlets moving away from the top, and out to the ends. Soon we'll have two choices: puff pieces or hit pieces. In America we get the journalism we deserve.
Oh my goodness, that update from Wired SENT ME. 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣
Personally, I like a lot of the extremists on Substack—like Bari Weiss, the mild-mannered lesbian whose crimes against humanity include asking "too many questions" and having "extremely" long podcasts that you can't listen to in one sitting.
Lulu, very excited to read your first post. Disagree with you here.
I think this approach undervalues the truth and the media's role in surfacing substantive issues on behalf of the public. I wouldn't want to work for a mission-driven company that, having some principles, then abandons the high road when it comes to dealing with the press. This approach sees engagement in the public conversation as a matter of tactics aimed at "eroding the legitimacy of the regime." In other words, aimed at eroding the Fourth Estate.
From the top, I think it's a little weak to credit the literal best example of business journalism in the world -- John Carreyrou's Theranos coverage -- while failing to engage with the fact that literally every other piece of reporting will fall short of that standard. I supported your campaign to get a correction from Wired. But I don't support it as an effort to undermine the media as a whole. The fact that Wired was willing to correct the story, to me shows that the media is ultimately primarily concerned with getting the facts right even if they often stumble along the way.
While reporters are definitely concerned with "the current thing," their concern is often rooted in some real concerns that some segment of the public has.
Fundamentally "the current thing" that Substack has long grappled with reflected a substantive question: Given that Substack wants to be treated as a neutral platform and not a publisher, did Substack's decision to favor certain writers by paying them to join Substack undermine Substack's claims of neutrality. Substack did not do a great job of answering transparently who got paid and so questions about Substack have naturally persisted. I think there are still very legitimate questions about what percentage of Substack's revenue comes from anti-vax newsletters.
Who is benefiting from Substack? Where is Substack spending its money? Is Substack following the principles that it professes to? This is the stuff of reporting.
Certainly many reporters, hitting a wall on their factual reporting, then veered into speculative, opinionated writing. And I've criticized them alongside you for that. No question. But I would have preferred that Substack just be honest and transparent about who it paid. And if the company could not be honest and transparent, at least engage with whether it believed that decision to make secret agreements was a mistake.
Instead, it feels like Substack's strategy was to mobilize the culture war (through the strategy described here) to distract from real substantive questions that reporters had a legitimate reason to ask. These manipulative tactics then only induce the media to (misguidedly) respond by escalating their cynical tone, further eroding the Fourth Estate.
We all lose.
I'd urge companies to be honest, helpful, and transparent. Wielding the mob is a short-term strategy. Ultimately engaging with the media -- as you also have done -- and convincing them with facts, transparency, and reason is the best approach.
As a case study: This approach might make sense tactically in the short term but it can also backfire. While you don't say so explicitly, this is a strategy that Coinbase has deployed with mixed success. The approach has soured Coinbase's reputation with the media and I don't know that the company has enough fans in the crypto world to go it alone. It's also a company that in my opinion should care about elite press coverage given that's what is read in Washington. Coinbase is a company that needs to win over lawmakers and regulators. It might be a viscerally satisfying playbook to run but I'm not sure it's even that strategic.
Mudslinging will surely win battles on Twitter but I don't know if it wins the ultimate PR war -- winning hearts and minds.
Great article, but could use more cow bell.
God, this was great, and also really fun to read. I'm curious —and I recognize that this may be a hard question to address— about your thoughts on the role "personality" plays in all this. Certain tactics work / seem authentic from certain personalities and not from others; we've all see the catastrophe that results when people cargo-cult these tacts, the diffident founder trying to ape Jobs, or the kid pretending not to be bothered by playground taunts while his face turns read (wait... was that me?).
Any thoughts on how companies should think about what the personalities involved, from founders to comms folks to anyone else, constrain or enable different tactics? In Substack's case, you really personify (IMO) "wry insouciance" and being "unfazed," but can just anyone really pull that off?
Wow, that's the best text about media relations I've read so far. Looking forward to the next episodes 👊