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When a news outlet has been 'scooped': 3 common responses—and PR lessons

In this 2003 photo, an 11-year-old soaks up the sun while being buried in the sand in San Diego. Like their journalism counterparts, publicists must steer clear of a head-in-sand mentality.
In this 2003 photo, an 11-year-old soaks up the sun while being buried in the sand in San Diego. Like their journalism counterparts, publicists must steer clear of a head-in-sand mentality.Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Do you remember which media outlet was the first to break the news of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001?

More importantly, do you realize the relative insignificance of the answer? Story-telling is a marathon, not a sprint. Between being first and being best, there’s no question that the latter is preferable—although achieving both is attainable on occasion.

For a journalist, one of the most satisfying moments is breaking a story before the competition. But other than journalists, and perhaps their moms, hardly anyone else really cares who nurtured a tip into working the angles that ferreted out the details that became a “scoop.”

It’s not a question, then, of whether a news organization will be scooped, but what avenue you choose when you are inevitably scooped.

The clear-eyed realism of that perspective echoes a life principle taught by Tracey Eaton, undersized National Football League player-turned-Amway Diamond. Speaking to World Wide Group (WWDB) organization audiences, Tracey on many occasions has said words to the effect: "It's not how many times you are knocked down, but how many times you get back up."

After 20 years in journalism, and having been on the public relations side of the story-telling divide for the past decade, it is clear that each of the common media responses represents a kind of “PR Moment” for the news outlet. At the same time, each response carries a lesson for PR practitioners:

1. The Rapid Response.

Some stories demand immediate action—a public official is announcing a bid for higher office or there was a murder in your community. In these instances, the competition will respond as quickly as possible, straining to minimize the gap by which they have been beaten.

Media’s PR Moment: Like a 100-meter dash, a news outlet may have been slow out of the blocks, but they can still overtake the leader.

Our PR Lesson: It ain’t over till you say it’s over. If your client is getting pummeled in the press, that doesn’t mean you have to stay in a downtrodden state. Figure out a creative way to either avoid punches or, better yet, to mount a counter-attack.

2. The Raising-the-Bar Response

This is where a media outlet changes the terms of the story by emphasizing an element that the initial news-breaker minimized or missed entirely. Sure, the Congressman won’t be running for re-election, but the better media outlet follows up with a piece that tells the world why.

In true raising-the-bar spirit, journalists take care not to regard the original story as gospel but to fact-check their reporting on their own. They know not to abdicate their own journalistic duties by sprinkling in “according to” phrases like they are magical pixie dust that turns their glorified re-hash into a story.

Media’s PR Moment: The news outlet can better serve its audience, and even manage to have them look past the fact that the outlet was “scooped,” by hustling to tell the story in a more compelling way or by communicating an entirely new aspect of the story.

Our PR Lesson: It ain’t over for the simple reason that you have moved the discussion from here to there. Every individual and organization has numerous facets and features—identify positive traits that align with your client’s marketing plan and shift the focus there.

All stories evolve, sooner or later. Identify the earliest potential point for a sufficiently newsworthy twist or turn in the story, and deploy your resources to being first—and best—for that stage of the story’s life.

3. The Bury-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Response

In other words, there’s no response at all—at least for a good while. Media outlets pretend as if the scoop never happened and completely ignore the story for days, weeks or even longer.

Usually, these are not life-or-death, “must-have” stories, but bread-and-butter pieces of news that can be told sooner or later. The burying-head-in-sand practitioners opt for much, much later.

“You want to see our account of that story you saw or heard elsewhere?” they are telling their audience. “We’ll get around to it after the dust has settled; we’re going to hold out until the memory of our getting beaten has faded from people’s memories.”

Media’s PR Moment: The news outlet is doing a disservice to its audience by sacrificing timely, relevant news on the altar of its own bruised ego. It does so at its own peril: employing this tactic enough times will prompt people to question the media’s legitimacy and value.

Our PR Lesson: Fail to wage the media outreach you promised, by farming it out to inexperienced hands or otherwise, and you will be rightly seen as putting your own interests ahead of theirs. Resort to tactics like this too often, and when it comes to credibility, respect and reputation in the marketplace, it will be over for you.