How to change the mind of a critical journalist


As a journalist, I’ve hated a lot of companies over the years. I can only think of one that managed to change my mind in more or less a single stroke.

It was the fall of 2011, and I was covering a Chinese mobile phone startup called Xiaomi. They had just released their first phone, but they seemed to be marketing the device via a strange, off-putting focus on Steve Jobs. First, the company’s founder Lei Jun aped Jobs’s jeans-and-black-turtleneck style at a press event. Then he gave a bizarre magazine interview where he allegedly said that everyone in the mobile industry was waiting for Steve Jobs to “kick the bucket.” That interview was accompanied by a creepy photo of Lei in a basement, standing in front of dozens of photos of Steve Jobs. And then when Jobs actually did die in early October, the company’s official account tweeted a very tasteless joke: a message that simply read: “iDead.”

The way you feel about Xiaomi after reading that paragraph—that’s exactly how I felt. At that point, I hadn’t actually tried Xiaomi’s smartphone. But the company’s public moves left such a bad taste in my mouth that I wrote an opinion piece suggesting people avoid it. In news articles about the company, I mentioned the criticism the company had received from all corners for the “iDead” controversy to be sure my readers had that context. I wasn’t trying to smear Xiaomi—including that kind of context is part of my job, as is writing opinion pieces—but my articles were still doing damage. Xiaomi wasn’t happy.

Then they did something that completely changed my perspective. They gave me a call and invited me to their headquarters.

To be honest, I was a little worried about going. Although I felt I’d been fair, I knew they couldn’t be pleased with some of the things I had written. The paranoid part of my brain feared an ambush.

What happened was the exact opposite. Rather than lashing out aggressively or throwing a bunch of PR platitudes in my face, they sat me down with one of the company’s co-founders. We had a frank but cordial discussion about my concerns, and he clarified a few things. He said the employee responsible for the “iDead” tweet had been fired, and that the “kick the bucket” line had been invented by the magazine writers to create some drama. It didn’t totally assuage my concerns, but it did help to convey that the company wasn’t insane as the public image it seemed to be projecting, and that it was trying to improve.

The co-founder I spoke with also gave me a very in-depth demo of the company’s first smartphone, and I came away really impressed with the apparently quality given its low price point. Then they introduced me to a new PR contact who promised to answer any future questions I had as quickly as possible.

By the time I walked back out onto the street, my opinion of the company had shifted. I certainly didn’t see them as evil or creepy anymore, and I was actually pretty excited about the quality of their product. I remember thinking it might make a good Christmas present for my wife.

What Xiaomi did right

So Xiaomi had changed the mind of a critic. What exactly did they do to make that happen?

Communicate honestly

They answered my questions directly, without trying to dodge or spin them. You might be surprised at how disarming that can be for journalists, who are used to being stonewalled or attacked by PR people whenever they ask critical questions. If your company did something wrong, it’s better to admit the mistake and *then* talk about your side of the story and what you’re going to do to fix or make up for the mistake. Denying or dodging will only make a good journalist want to dig harder. Admitting a mistake and trying to fix it makes you seem human.

Put a friendly face on the company

You would probably be surprised at how unfeeling and corporate your carefully-crafted email pitches and press releases sound to a journalist who gets bombarded by dozens of those every day. Bringing a reporter into your office is a great way to remind them that you’re not just faceless corporate drones, you’re actual human beings who are working hard on a project you’re passionate about.

(Of course, for this to work, the people in your office have to actually be working hard on a project they’re passionate about. If they aren’t, you’ve got much bigger problems than a grumpy journalist to worry about).

Showing that you’re real people and putting faces to the names in the journalist’s head makes you much, much harder to criticize. When Xiaomi went from strangers to acquaintances who had treated me well, I felt a lot more guilty writing negative things about them. It’s basic human nature, and journalists are not immune.

Plus, when dealing with a critic, face-to-face communication is your greatest ally, since people tend to be less combative and more open to compromise when the subject of their criticism is right in front of them. You’re much more likely to have a productive conversation with a critic in person than you are over the phone or—even worse—through email.

Flatter their ego

Although we try not to be, journalists—like all humans—can be vulnerable to flattery. By having me meet with a co-founder, Xiaomi made me feel like I was important, and gave me the impression I was being taken seriously. In truth, I’m not sure my coverage was very important to them one way or the other. But they made me feel like it was, which put me in a good mood. People’s moods affect their perceptions, so if you put your critic in a good mood during their visit, they’re more likely to walk away with a positive overall impression.

Impress them with the product

The concerns that brought me into Xiaomi’s headquarters really had nothing to do with their product. But at the end of the day the product is what really matters. It’s what readers want to know about, and when evaluating a company most journalists will be thinking things like: Will this product sell? How does it compare to competitors’ offerings? Is it something I should recommend or steer readers away from? Given that, if you have a good product, use it. Show a journalist that your company is making something of value, and it’ll have a positive impact.

Plus, journalists, much like crows, can be distracted by shiny things.

Give them a point of contact

Now that you’ve made this personal connection and tied names to faces in the journalist’s mind, don’t let it slip away! Maybe your VP can’t be available 24/7 to answer reporters’ questions, but giving the reporter some kind of contact they can communicate with regularly helps keep that connection alive. Plus, journalists work on tight deadlines, and always appreciate PR people who care enough to get back to them quickly with answers. Having a responsive and friendly go-to contact at a company makes their work easier, and that’ll make them more likely to feel good about your company when the opportunity to editorialize rolls around.

Use more honey

In short, if you want to change the mind of a critical journalist, it’s generally better to use honey than vinegar. Be friendly and direct, and address their concerns. Have them meet with someone who matters, not just a PR drone, and be sure that person can convey your company’s side of things without seeming defensive, dodgy, or combative. And of course, it always helps if you’ve got a cool product to show off once the serious discussion is over. Finally, don’t forget to ensure the new relationship you’ve built stays intact by making sure the reporter has access to a PR person who can help them with future stories.


About Author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is an editor at Tech in Asia, where he covers the Chinese technology industry. He lives in Maine with his wife and dog.