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Face to Face with Michael Moore
Lessons learned to avoid reporter ambushes.
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 by Mary Doyle

Mary DoyleI worked for Humana as a Media Relations Manager from late 1998 to 2006. Early in my time at the corporate headquarters, I took a phone call from a producer who stated she worked for Channel 4 BBC out of London. She was producing a new TV series (supposedly not yet named) and her team was doing a story on health care and health coverage. She wanted a representative from Humana to “talk broadly about health coverage.”

What I did not realize at the time of this call is she actually was working for Michael Moore on his series, “The Awful Truth” for the Bravo network. While my director actually conducted the interview (if you could call it that) with Moore, himself, it was a tremendous lesson in really digging when a reporter calls to get as much detail out of them as you can on their real agenda. I had only been in the corporate office about six weeks when I took the producer’s call. After reviewing the notes from the initial phone call with my director, we suspected there may be a hidden agenda. 

Looking back, there were several red flags: the producer did not identify the reporter when asked for his/her name on a subsequent phone call. She stated it would be a “correspondent”. She also admitted to speaking, for this series, with one of the health insurance industry’s critics . . . yet another red flag. She indicated she also had spoken with a Humana member who would be in the series . . . a third red flag. 

At the time, the insurance industry was under a lot of scrutiny (not that it isn’t still). HIPAA laws prevent companies from discussing specifics, so we were battling those regulations and company attorneys. Equally frustrating was when members would go directly to the news media, which we later learned happened, as the member involved in this case spoke to a reporter from the local newspaper where the member lived. 

When the crew arrived at our corporate headquarters, yet another gut check took place for me as there seemed to be a nurse with the TV crew, which I thought was odd. I expressed this to the Vice President of our department and my director and it was at that point after we had seated the “crew” in a conference room that we realized Michael Moore was the correspondent, and he had paid to bring the Humana member with him who was being featured on the future segment of “The Awful Truth.” No, this was not a coup for Humana.  

As a professional it taught our media team and me, personally, the following:

  • Dig, dig, dig to identify who, what, and why a reporter is calling. What is the real reason he/she is contacting your company?

  • Before committing to the interview, and with social media, blogs and other Internet sites available, do some additional homework on the show, the producer, any bias for/against your industry.

  • Make sure you have a crisis communications plan in place, especially for field offices where there may not be on-site public relations support.

  • Go with your gut when you get a call from a reporter and it “doesn’t feel right”; it is likely not going to be favorable.

  • Since reputation management is the mainstay of what PR professionals provide to an organization, you have the right to decline a news interview request if there’s strong indication it will have negative consequences for the company (that said, I do not believe in sticking one’s head in the sand in a crisis in which a company may have been at fault and needs to rectify the situation).

This incident could certainly be used (and was locally for a PRSA workshop after the series aired) and how to avoid such guerrilla-style ambushes. It is a case study about the importance of preparation and knowing the agenda and purpose for a reporter’s call. 

Mary Doyle is an experienced public relations professional based in
 Shelbyville, KY with a concentration in communications 
in the healthcare industry.

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