James Lee, senior VP and chief public affairs officer at ChoicePoint, spoke at the PRSA International Conference today about ChoicePoint's experience with the theft of 145,000 customer records in 2005.

It was an interesting study in crisis management, but what stuck me the most was comments by him and the audience about their lousy experiences with reporters. Examples:

  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story four days after news of the theft broke that claimed that ChoicePoint's CEO was hiding from the media. In fact, Lee said, the CEO had been unusually open to the media, compared to executives at other companies in that situation. He had given several media interviews, but was unavailable when the Journal-Constitution reporter called. The paper's story was the only one to accuse the CEO of evasiveness.
  • ChoicePoint wanted to make a careful distinction between theft of data and a hack, because the latter term implies a computer security vulnerability. This is an important distinction to investors and regulators. However, one west coast newspaper had a policy of referring to all information thefts as “hacks,” regardless of the nature of the breach. This made ChoicePoint's problem look worse than it really was.
  • Pressure to file on deadline forces reporters to seek opinion instead of facts because opinion is easier to get. “In the real world, it takes time to find facts,” Lee said. “If you don't have facts immediately, they'll find some [pundit] with an opinion.” Early impressions tend to stick, which means that subsequent facts are buried or ignored.
  • Media outlets throw business stories to inexperience reporters, who don't understand the fine points of an often complex story and need to be educated under deadline, leading to errors and misunderstanding.
  • News outlets nearly always stick by their story, even when the evidence is overwhelming that they're wrong.
  • These problems are only getting worse as newsrooms cut staff and competition compresses deadlines.

PR people have to deal with the media constantly and so are more likely to have gripes with the media, but the level of frustration surprised me, nevertheless. This is one reason mainstream media gets so little sympathy for its current woes. Years of arrogance have left it with very few friends at a time when it could use a few.

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