‘Pink slime’ lawsuit could upend one-sided TV reporting–but don’t bet on it

Maybe you were repulsed when reports of “pink slime” began getting national attention just about 12 months ago. Maybe you were amused. But now it’s time for PR professionals to pay attention. A ruling is expected soon on what some view as a “landmark defamation suit” that could put a chilling effect on aggressive, one-sided investigative reporting.

By the end of last year, the makers of “lean, finely textured beef,” aka pink-slime, had been decimated by a public relations sand storm. And had captured Force for Good’s infamous “PR Disaster of the Year Award.”

Beef Products Inc., the leading manufacturer of the beef product in question, has closed three of its four plants and seen its annual revenue plummet from $650 million to about S130 million. The company blames the sharp fall in its fortunes to a relentless series of ABC News broadcasts that began last March in which its product was repeatedly called “pink slime.”

Last September, the company filed a lawsuit against the network and anchor Diane Sawyer, seeking at least $1.2 billion in damages. Few gave the lawsuit much hope of success—the standard for proving defamation in the U.S. is quite high. According to Reuters, to win its case BPI needs to show ABC negligently reported false statements that injured its reputation (it won’t have any difficulty showing injury). And if ABC succeeds in having the court deem BPI a public rather than private figure in the legal sense, it would have an even higher bar to scale—proving the network knew the facts it was reporting were false and “recklessly disregarded the truth.”

BPI contends the ABC disregarded sources contrary to its story line (providing a more positive view of BPI’s beef product) and emphasized critics’ complaints. But any veteran PR professional knows that this is par for the course in dealing with television investigative journalists—it’s an unfortunate reality of the media dynamic we deal with all the time.

Furthermore, ABC’s lawyers argue that use of the term “pink slime” was “rhetorical hyperbole” that is constitutionally protected, much as a colorfully negative restaurant review.

To date, the best PR practice in dealing with TV media investigating your company, brand or product is to work with them with your eyes wide open. Know what you’re getting into, do your homework and insist on high standards of professionalism from the media. Make sure journos are fully aware of the “rest of the story”—not just your adversaries’ view of the story that they may find so plausible and compelling. Provide knowledgeable, credible spokespeople who have been media trained and won’t get rattled. If you believe your spokesperson is getting set up for a media mugging, decline to go on-camera and provide a concise, clear, simple and empathetic statement. Follow up relentlessly as the on-air date nears with any new information important to a fair and complete understanding of the issue.

But when the report finally airs, don’t be surprised by the persistent negative tone and overall slant against your company. Memorable television is not made by reports that carefully hew the middle of the road. You just can’t expect television news to give your perspective equitable play in the story or series.

BPI’s hopes for prevailing hinge on a product disparagement statute in the state of South Dakota, where the case is being heard. The statute protects against information known to be false and stating or implying “that an agricultural food product is not safe for consumption by the public.”

If BPI succeeds in getting any concession from ABC, even though limited by the narrow constraints of this so-called “veggie-libel” statute, the chilling effect on aggressive, one-sided investigative reporting could be substantial.

But don’t hold your breath. And, in the meantime, continue to cooperate with investigative journalists with your eyes wide open.

 Jon Harmon

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