Friday, May 8, 2009

Bad Advice: Even a Dying Newspaper Can Throw a Knock-Out Punch When Threatened

When the New Jersey Hackensack University Medical Center learned that a very negative story was going to run in their local paper (The Bergen Record), just before the article appeared the hospital contacted the newspaper and told them that if the story ran the paper could no longer be sold at the hospital gift shop or in newspaper boxes; subscriptions would be ended; the hospital’s ads were to be removed from the media group’s Web site; and the advertising contract canceled.

Even a nine-year old can figure out how this story ends.

The article appeared, including commentary on the hospital’s preemptive actions and by noon, the newspaper was receiving apology phone calls from the hospital’s Board of Directors. Seems these stalwart gentlemen from the community accustomed to entertaining suck ups, naïvely believed that at most, the newspaper would knuckle under and, at the very least, would keep their names out of the paper. There was neither sucking nor anonymity.

Bad thinking. Dumb advice. Self-inflicted crisis creation, rather than crisis management. Predictable bad result.

Ironically, the daughter of the North Jersey media group’s chairman, Malcolm Borg (they own The Record), serves on the hospital’s Board. According to an account in The New York Times she had recused herself from most decisions having to do with newspaper.

In more than three decades of practice, every time I have seen this tactic tried, it blew up in the faces of the perpetrators, triggered longer-term damage and sanctions, and forced significant management change at the top of the organization. Reminds me of the story of the kid holding up the dairy store. He had a gun, he pulled the trigger, nothing happened. He looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger again. This time the weapon took his head off. The clock is ticking on whose head will role for this gaffe.

If you’d like more details, see The New York Times, May 4, 2009, “A battle with a New Jersey Newspaper Backfires.”

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