Archive for November, 2012

Stockpiling Good Will: Media Lessons from Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus giving interview in Iraq.

Taking a few weeks offline was good for gaining a healthy and considered perspective on some major stories in the news. We’ll be looking back on these stories over the next couple of weeks. But first, like everyone else, we were saddened by the downfall of Gen. David Petraeus. His uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and resulting fall from grace were both surprising and disheartening for a nation in need of heroes and leaders. Yet, some media reports suggest he may not be out of the limelight for very long. Why? Well, clearly, Gen. Petraeus is man of considerable intellect and talents. But if he emerges from this fray faster and stronger than some others have, it may well be due to his well-documented skills in cultivating media good will. So Petraeus’s fall from grace may hold a cautionary tale for PR pros and the C-suites they report to about building good relations with the media.

Gen. Petraeus was reported to have enjoyed good press for at least the past decade by careful cultivation of the media. In sum, his behavior can be described as what we at MediaWorks call “stockpiling good will.” Here are some clues on how he built up such enviable relations with the press and, perhaps, some lessons you can take away in kind:

Access. Gen. Petraeus understood that carefully doling out access was the “coin of the realm” for building trusted relations, and he did so, not simply by providing access via formal channels, but by providing access, up close and personal.  He was known for his regular phone “chats” with reporters; he took select reporters on his jogs; he took them behind the scenes in the command rooms and quarters where decisions were made. In one instance he even took a reporter with him aboard a Black Hawk helicopter to survey a battlefront. And wherever he took them, he gave each of them the sense he was taking them “close to the action.”

Engagement. Petraeus no doubt also scored major points with media by engaging them on flexible terms.  In granting such unusual access, Petraeus followed through by being agile in how he responded to reporters’ queries. Recognizing the limitations within each situation, he demonstrated he understood the “rules of the game” by providing information however it would be helpful—on record, off-record, on background, etc. In each case, reporters no doubt felt they were experiencing access, engagement, and ergo, candor, of a rare or unprecedented kind.

Enthusiasm and Insight.  Media love sources who can deliver good information in digestible chunks (the proverbial ‘good sound bite’.) Beyond­­­ the basic news release, news pitch, or one-time story strategy, Petraeus and his staff clearly understood what was required to advance a progressive story—and, apparently in most instances, they provided an impressive combination of insight and information that gives even the most complex story real “life”, with real human dimension. Yet, even in cases where the insights provided weren’t especially profound, the combination of access, engagement and enthusiasm made reporters feel they had been taken on a “unique” adventure and encouraged them to find meaning in the interaction.

So these appear to be some of the ingredients to Gen. Petraeus’s steady increase in popularity, with the media. While not exactly “top secret,” they are lessons missed frequently by companies in handling their media relations. Will Petraeus be able to use these tactics deftly in a public comeback? Are there lessons here you can extract for creating your own helpful media environment? Only time will tell ….


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