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Firing Back

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” – The Untouchables

One of the most instinctive human reactions, to the despair of great moral teachers throughout history who have tried to convince us otherwise, is to fight back. When you’re attacked, you come back out swinging. When somebody says something bad about you, it’s time for an argument.

But in public relations, when are your instincts right, or when are you simply extending the news cycle and drawing more attention to unpleasant matters? What might make sense in an interpersonal conflict might become bad business when all factors are taken into account. 

I was struck today by two interesting return salvoes from two very different organizations. The first is Walmart, which literally took a red pen to an op-ed in The New York Times castigating Walmart for contributing to inequality and comparing it to Starbucks’ lauded efforts. The “fact check” has become a form of journalism in and of itself in recent years, and some businesses and organizations have co-opted that model to turn the tables not only on political or business opponents but also on the media themselves. (For instance, Koch Industries, which is owned by the politically-active Koch brothers, maintains an entire website at www.KochFacts.com to rebut what they view as incorrect media coverage.) Walmart’s response drew heavily on existing third-party analyses and made the points they wanted made, but it realistically drew more attention to yet another op-ed about their company than would otherwise have occurred organically.

The other return fire came from Minor League Baseball (MiLB), which was responding to a statement by NCAA President Mark Emmert that “To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into minor league sports. And we know that in the U.S. minor league sports aren’t very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.” MiLB President & CEO Pat O’Conner published an open letter to Emmert, noting that minor-league baseball attracts 41 million fans a year, more than the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLS, and inviting him to a game. Recognizing that his letter would create media coverage (which it did), O’Conner’s communications team also smartly added a number of positive facts and figures about everything from the diversity of MiLB’s crowds (48% female fans) to the cost of attending a minor-league game ($63 for a family of four) to charitable donations and a recitation of the ways in which MiLB “is Americana.” MiLB’s return fire was an intelligent use of an offhand remark in the midst of a larger story to get their own positive messaging into the news cycle.

The difference between the two tactics is that while Walmart was picking a fight and simply saying “You’re wrong,” MiLB was staking out the high ground. While how each antagonist will respond remains to be seen, smart money is on NYT op-ed author Timothy Egan taking the opportunity to craft a response to Walmart’s edits that will get “Walmart promotes inequality” into the newspaper at least one more time. However, the MiLB open letter will more likely garner an apology from Emmert and probably at least one more ticket sold and some positive media coverage for Minor League Baseball as he makes his apologetic pilgrimage to the AAA Indianapolis Indians…who play literally across the street from his office.


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