28 Nov 2017

In early November, a dispute between one of the world’s most prominent brands and one of the country’s largest newspapers became public. Walt Disney Co., upset over news coverage about its financial dealings with the city of Anaheim, Calif., barred the Los Angeles Times from press screenings of its movies. The newspaper made the ban public with a note to its readers on Nov. 3.

The fallout from the media was swift. News outlets including The New York Times and the Washington Post boycotted covering Disney movies. Film critics groups such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and others issued a joint announcement that they were banning Disney films from their awards programs. Film critics took to Twitter to voice their unity against Disney. The company, meanwhile, maintained it had been treated unfairly and that the newspaper had a political agenda; at least one newspaper agreed (Orange County Register).

When I worked in newspapers, there was an old saying for when disputes broke out: “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” The words “man” and “ink” may show the age of that saying, but in today’s world of tweets, blogs and always-connected mobile devices, its warning remains pertinent.

Disney, of course, is a powerhouse when it comes to films. “Coco” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” are current films bound to make a splash this holiday season. Access to press screenings could certainly be used as leverage with media. But the tactic used by Disney expanded the dispute to a much wider audience, and this audience—movie/art enthusiasts—is a passionate group. If it was Disney’s intent to bring more attention to its fight with the newspaper, then it certainly succeeded. As to whether any of the news coverage and dispute has had a lasting impact on the brand is something Disney will have to ascertain. But an important point for all brands to consider is when seeking to protect your reputation, understand the tactic itself could alter your brand’s perception. Another approach could have been to contain the dispute between the company and the local city desk editors and reporters in the newsroom. Keep the discussions with them, and keep it local; don’t bring in the film critics.

Most organizations will never have a media dispute at this level, but it’s a good reminder to have an experienced media relations team working with you if such a situation arises. When unfair or inaccurate media reports happen, it’s imperative to have a fast evaluation of the situation and, if warranted, response. Most brands should promote and reinforce their positive messages at such times. Blogs and social media provide direct channels to your stakeholders. PR pros can work with the media and help protect a brand’s reputation while limiting additional or possibly even worse negative coverage. Every situation can be different.

Days after Disney’s ban became public, the company dropped it. Leadership at the newspaper and Disney say they have had productive discussions on moving forward. Productive discussions sound much better than sloshing around fighting with movie critics in barrels of ink.