Journalists Don’t Back Down from Raw-Knuckled PR Tactics

Ken Silverstein | May 22, 2013


Harken back to the deepest and darkest moments of the California energy crisis. Utilities’ rates were tightly regulated and neither the governor nor the state legislature would lift the rate caps so that utilities could recoup their costs. Instead, they insisted that power traders were manipulating markets while the elected leadership pleaded with federal regulators to limit wholesale electricity prices.

Eventually, unethical traders combined with a flawed regulatory design to upend the California energy scheme as well as to end the job of its then-sitting governor. It also forced Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy and it pushed Southern California Edison to the precipice of disaster.

“Hello, this is John Bryson,” the chief executive officer of Southern California Edison said as he answered my call from his office phone -- at 6 a.m. Pacific Time, in the year 2000. I introduced myself, to which he replied, “Sorry that I’ve been unable to get back with you but the folks in our media relations department have relayed your messages. I understand you would like an interview?”

Bryson, who went on to become U.S. Commerce Secretary in the Obama administration, proceeded to talk freely with me, explaining the hardships that the energy debacle had taken on his company as well as the state’s economy. It was a glimpse inside the mind of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Today, Southern California Edison is going through a different crisis. It’s one that is centered on its idled nuclear facility, which in shorthand is called SONGS. The plant, with two reactors, has been down since January 2012 because of an uncommon vibration that caused hundreds of tubes inside its steam generators to prematurely wear thin. Radiation subsequently leaked at one of the units.

While investigations are now underway, the central question is whether the utility knew about the underlying issues before the leaks were discovered in 2012. The utility is emphatic that it did not. Two key U.S. lawmakers, however, suspect otherwise. Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is deciding if the company can restart its one “healthy” unit while the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether any vital information had been concealed from investors.

Combative Tone

The fate of SONGS is at stake. But so, too, is the future of the nuclear resurgence, especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Now, more than ever before, Southern California Edison needs the type of outreach and the kind of connection that John Bryson had established with me 13 years earlier. It was personal and it was honest. And it was deeply appreciated. 

And while I can understand that the utility is now under immense stress, it has done an inadequate job of measuring up to those earlier standards. It has -- fairly -- disagreed with the facts as I’ve presented them. But it has taken the unusual step of trying to go over my head as a way to redirect my energies. It has failed. But such a tack presumes the reporter believes a Watergate exists under every rock -- not true, in the vast majority of cases, as journalists want to get the story right.

By contrast, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which designed the steam generators in question to the utility, made a polite request to discuss with me my coverage of the plight of SONGS. It was personal and it was heartfelt -- an attempt to get out their side of the story, and to establish a trust between their company and me. Both the media professional and the source were genuine.

In the end, which tactic do you think is more effective? The combative tone that is demanding retribution or the diplomatic one that is trying to impart a position to a wider audience? If reporters become rogue and are derelict in their duties, they will lose respect, and their jobs. But misunderstandings or honest mistakes can be corrected and the record can be set straight.

Two-plus decades ago, at the Journal of Commerce, an advertiser had accused a reporter of making a flagrant error. It took its case to the publisher, who said that the paper would print a front page correction. The journalist insisted, however, that he hadn’t erred and that trying to placate the sponsor was wrongheaded. The pugnacious PR approach to getting “justice” created a lingering ill-will within our newsroom. 

That raw-knuckled style is similar to that of the National Rifle Association. And while this column is not the place to debate the merits of gun control, it does provide an appropriate example of the point I’m trying to make. As an ardent proponent of tough gun regulations, I’ve written multiple columns advocating as much. The NRA leaders are fat targets because they come across as wretched and unfeeling, caring mostly about increasing gun sales at the expense of public safety. In short, they are bullies and the media are able to fight back.

Public Outreach

Having said that, my experience has been that of getting these extremely cordial responses from nearly all readers -- ones that have extended a variety of invitations so that I can better grasp their pro-gun position. Locally, my children’s music teacher, who is active in her Catholic church and who has six kids, is a soft spoken advocate for reasonable gun rights. This should be the face of the NRA.

For those entrenched in a point of view, public outreach can seem as if it is unnecessary, or a distraction from the pursuit of their cause. But if companies or organizations lose the people’s trust, they will flounder in the marketplace. It’s a universal truth and it’s one that is especially applicable to that of the nuclear sector, which believes passionately that it is safe and reliable. But, yet, it has little patience when trying to convey its message to a broader audience.

Southern California Edison is getting walloped in the press. Some of that just comes with the territory, as it and the other utility incumbents in California learned in the early 2000s. But some of that is the result of poor public relations and the distrust that has crested between it and its opponents.

The goal here, as it is in every credible news organization, is to be accurate and fair. Mitsubishi starts with that assumption and it’s the way that it has chosen to interact with journalists. Southern California Edison, in some cases, has opted to take a hardline approach. While there may be occasions when such a PR strategy is warranted, most of the time that tack will backfire and the journalists who are getting squeezed will only dig in.  

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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