Dealing with Media Thoughtfully

Much has been written lately about the role media should or should not have played in certain affairs of national import. This is clearly an important topic for the United States and the world, as well as for those responsible for leading us.

As a businessman representing a large multinational company in emerging markets, I have had my own experiences dealing with local media, where any missteps could have had serious consequences for the company. When my company, Procter & Gamble, was facing tough criticism from a ministry in Ukraine – in their assessment P&G’s Tide detergent was not meeting local standards for quality and efficacy – I was invited to attend a press conference about this matter. Without fully grasping the intentions of the authorities, I decided to attend, not expecting to be thrust into the limelight.

There were close to 75 journalists in attendance. The Minister for Standardization and Certification took the podium and matter-of-factly laid out the charges against my company: that we were importing into Ukraine and selling detergent products of inferior quality. She then said, “It just so happens that the country manager of the company is here. Representatives of the media should ask him what his company is trying to do.”

All eyes turned toward me – and several journalists approached me, microphones in hand. I had to think very fast. My first thought was to start to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges that the minister had just leveled against my company. I quickly realized that I was being framed by people who were experts in manipulating the media and their messaging in pursuit of their own agenda – something we later came to see during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, to great effect.

Officials like the minister, who had grown up in the Soviet communist system, were experts at this. They knew how powerful a tool a manipulated media onslaught can be. In recent months we have learned a lot about this – possibly affecting the outcomes of recent elections in the West, and perhaps of elections still to come.

Curbing my initial reflex, I took the microphone and delivered a short statement: “My company prides itself on producing and selling products of highest quality, including those that we sell in Ukraine. We feel some technical error has been made in the testing done by the ministry. We look forward to working with them in the coming days to resolve the matter.”

With that said, I left. There was no way for me to land a knockout punch. I was being cornered into a lose–lose situation. Saying “no comment” would have been the worst response. At the same time, at this moment I was not authorized by my company to speak to the media. However, in the best interest of my company, that wasn’t a choice I could have made.

The issue dragged on for another two or three months, when it was finally resolved in favor of Procter & Gamble.

A somewhat different, but equally sensitive situation occurred in Pakistan. During the devastating floods of 2010, P&G sponsored laundry stations for free cleaning of clothes for flood refugees. Over the course of the summer, such laundry stations set up by P&G cleaned over 175,000 garments for refugees, completely free of charge.

I was visiting one such station when a reporter approached me, again with microphone in hand, and asked, “What percent of your company’s total profits are you spending on these laundry stations?” One could easily see the cynicism behind such a question. No matter what number I gave him, it would only have gone to make the company’s humanitarian effort look meager. I responded, “This is not about how much money is being spent, but about the fact that my company and our employees take pride in being able to help the unfortunate refugees in any way we can.”

There was no follow-up from the reporter.

S. Qaisar Shareef

August 14, 2017