Like it or not, it’s almost impossible to cut yourself off from today’s news media. Step into an elevator in any office tower and you are likely to find your eyes drawn to a television monitor with a stream of numbers and stock symbols scrolling through. Restaurants, bars, waiting rooms, lobbies and even airlines have televisions tuned to 24-hour news channels or sports events (or both).
We are bombarded by news, information and data day and night. Sometimes we are interested enough to absorb parts of it. Most of the time it passes over or through us without having much impact.
But when something really interests us — be it stock prices, entertainment news, sports or human tragedy — we are influenced to some extent by the media. It is this influence that politicians, governments, corporations, entertainers and celebrities try so hard to harness.
So can you.
Occasionally the world experiences something so dramatic or overwhelmingly important that it grabs everybody’s attention. We have no doubts — THIS IS NEWS!
On an average day, however, it’s far more likely that the items included in a news broadcast or newspaper will have a much more limited appeal. We wonder — and sometimes we write letters to the editor to complain — why anyone would want to PRINT SUCH DRIVEL!
Soon after World War II the US government established an official panel on Freedom of the Press which took it upon itself to try to define this nebulous thing we call “news.” According to the panel, news should be a full, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events. News should identify fact as fact and opinion as opinion, provide full access to the day’s intelligence and reflect the constituent groups in society. Now these are lofty ideals and we shouldn’t be too surprised when they are not lived up to all the time.
I like the definition of news provided by the late Phil Graham of the Washington Post. He called news “The first rough draft of history.” It may be important, have an impact on people and make a difference but it is being drafted on the run and so comes to us complete with errors, omissions, warts and foibles. Journalists watch the world rushing by at breakneck speed — and then present us with a snapshot of the day’s events and happenings. When you look at journalists’ work in that context, they don’t do too badly.
Here’s another definition I like. An old Australian editor once said that “news is anything that causes people to exclaim, Oh . . . !”
I’m not sure that it is possible to define news in a way that will satisfy everybody, any more than news organizations can be sure that all their readers, viewers or subscribers will approve of their selection of news items.
This may seem too vague and unsatisfying but bear in mind it is this vagueness that encourages so much diversity in the news media and allows more opportunities for ordinary people to tell their stories to their neighbours and, sometimes, to the world.
What we think of ourselves isn’t the same as what others think of us. It’s the same with companies, organizations and institutions.
Even insiders can have different views of an organization. Managers and employees are often at odds. Now broaden the frame of the picture to include customers, shareholders, competitors, suppliers, regulators, plant neighbours, financial analysts, fired employees and their dependants.
At any given time there may be several different assessments of the organization ranging from “wonderful” to “awful.” Often these views balance out. Occasionally one becomes more noticeable than the other. If it’s a positive view, everyone’s happy and the organization prospers. But if it’s negative, heads may roll and the organization may lose stature and money.
Because the news media appears to be so preoccupied with the bad stuff, most people are wary of it. Indeed, news organizations are often accused of ignoring the good to concentrate on the bad, even if the bad makes up a very small part of the whole.
Well, yes. Who, after all, is going to rush out and buy a newspaper or tune into a radio or TV program to learn that everything worked the way it should that day? Reporters and news outlets focus on things that break down, crash or fail through accident or design — because that is what people are interested in. It sells newspapers and swells audiences.
However, interspersed with all the bad stuff there’s also a range of other material. Some of this material is good, some contentious and some of interest only to certain people. This is the “news” area that provides most of the public relations opportunities for people and organizations to tell others about their goals, their products or their beliefs. Unfortunately it also contains pitfalls for the unwary.
A company may be delighted to attract the attention of a major news outlet because it uses a revolutionary production technique only to find the story that appears is about the preponderance of women on the shop floor and the preponderance of men in the board room. Could this have been prevented?
There are no guarantees that organizations and people will always get positive news coverage. Even Mother Theresa had some critics. But it is possible to influence the balance of coverage by:
Draw up a balance sheet of your strong points and weak points. Be honest. If yours is a small company with private homes and a school nearby, put yourself in the shoes of a neighbour or parent and see if you’d have any concerns about your operations.
You can get a good idea of the concerns the community may have about you by reviewing the regulatory and licensing requirements of your operations.
If your enterprise is part of a sector that has made news elsewhere because something went wrong, you may be asked what you are doing to change your operations to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen in your locality.
Look at your strong points. Do they contain something that would interest others, either the community at large or others like you? How would you go about telling them?
Most organizations and enterprises these days have mission statements and/or vision statements. But our experience is that few people have the ability to state simply and clearly what they or their organizations do. It seems so obvious to them they never consider that it may not be so obvious to others. This results in a lot of lost opportunities to make a positive impression.
The solution is to arm yourself with as many positive statements as possible about yourself and your activities and watch for opportunities to use them.
We ask questions of others to elicit information, imply criticism, display our knowledge or, sometimes, just to keep the conversation going. But we seldom analyze why others are asking questions of us. If we find the questions difficult, we can get upset; if irrelevant we can be dismissive. But in both instances we are missing opportunities to communicate something positive about ourselves or our organizations.
Study the news organizations you are most likely to come into contact with — or want to contact. Are they local, national, trade or professionally oriented?
In the days of the Soviet Union, you would hear the people of Eastern Europe joke “Visit Russia — before it visits you!” If you think you may be visited by a news organization in the future, visit it first.
Find out what kind of news the organization is interested in and what it is about you that may interest its reporters. Better still, try to get some background information about you and/or your organization into the hands of a reporter or editor who may have an interest in the same field even if not the same specific subject matter.
The most challenging aspect for any organization’s public affairs department is the media relations function. These titles for the Department in which communicators work have changed over time and are different in different organizations. Just as the Personnel Department became the Human Resources Department, the term Public Relations has changed into Public Affairs or Communication. Public Affairs implies that the organization is involved in issues of interest and importance to members of the public. Communication implies a variety of technical activities designed to move information from person to person and place to place. This might include advertising and direct mail. Some of my clients still use the old fashioned sounding term “press office.” I prefer Public Affairs.
There’s a similar debate about the terms stakeholder and public. Some Public Affairs professionals refer to their “publics.” This means customers, neighbours, suppliers, workers and others. Stakeholders can mean any who have a legitimate stake in what the organization is doing, including bankers, regulators, legislators and others. I’ve always felt that “public” implies that the issue is of known, public importance, and this would include neighbours, media, customers and politicians. It may also include regulators. Stakeholders seems to imply a more private relationship, including bankers, workers and perhaps regulators. But you can easily see how issues can move from being private to public, depending on the type of organization. For many practical purposes, these terms are interchangeable.
Effective media relations can save an organization’s reputation and commercial viability when something goes tragically wrong, as in the Tylenol poisoning case (Fall of 1982), the Coors appearance on 60 Minutes during a reputation management issue (April 1982), and Lee Iacocca’s forthright dealing with an odometer spinning controversy at Chrysler (July 1987). Despite serious and often true charges against him, President Bill Clinton seemed to be able to repeatedly use the media to salvage his reputation.
Poor media relations can have the opposite effect as in the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania which irrevocably tarnished the nuclear industry’s safety image; the chemical release in Bhopal, India (December 1984) and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 1989). More recently, the negative news stories about accounting procedures and their effect on stock prices seem to get worse as a result of poor communication.
Although all of the above examples cite large organizations with large professional public affairs and media relations departments, size isn’t a factor. Attitude is.
Some organizations feel they can be silent when information is sought by reporters and will attempt to “tough it out.” Experience shows this is not advisable since it merely creates an information vacuum into which others will step, and those others usually have their own agendas. Thus, it is important for an organization to attempt to be the most accurate and reliable source of information about its own activities. Spokespeople must be available and the organization must be seen to be cooperative and active.
The power of the news media is often misunderstood. While the news media has its failings, there’s no doubt that it helps shape and direct public opinion. Much of its power depends on its ability to disseminate information extremely quickly. It takes very few key people to decide that an event is big enough to be broadcast live around the world, where it will be watched by billions of people. That’s power.
At the same time we know the media can be ineffective in separating fact from perception and correcting misconceptions or inaccuracies. George Bernard Shaw once dismissed the media for being “unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.”
While reporters, line up editors and producers may often overreact or have misplaced priorities, you dismiss or ignore the media at your peril. Organizations must actively participate in the information flow.
This is particularly true when reporters are interested in a potentially negative story. If there is a problem, acknowledge it — then enumerate the actions being taken to correct the situation. This same information should be provided to stakeholders. All communications and actions should be taken with the focus on the long term interests of the stakeholders. Each direct contact with the stakeholders or contact with the media should be viewed as an opportunity to transmit the organization’s message and build rapport. The questions and needs of all stakeholders including the media should be anticipated and met in a timely fashion.
During these times, the news media will ask for, consume, collate and disseminate more information at a higher rate of speed and more widely than public affairs managers can anticipate. It is important that the company address this insatiable appetite with the attitude that the media and the public they serve have proper reasons for inquiring about the status of an event.
No purpose will be served by questioning why the media require as much information as they do as quickly as they do.
It will be important to use charts, graphs, status boards, cork boards or other means in media briefing or news conference rooms to keep reporters up-to-date on as many facts as possible. Assemble those facts by asking the traditional journalistic questions WHO, WHEN, WHAT, WHERE, WHY and HOW.
Some of these questions present special legal predicaments. There should be no speculation on the exact cause of an event or incident unless it is completely obvious. The same is true of liability and responsibility. In most cases these issues should not be addressed by anyone other than senior management. But senior management should also protect the organization’s credibility in cases where the answers to these questions are completely obvious. Beware of being too optimistic too early. You may not get back to normal or clean up the mess as quickly as you predict.
Formal media monitoring is available from several companies and is the only effective way to know exactly what news reports said about you. Coverage of your statements and those by politicians and others about you should be monitored and analyzed by an independent team on a regular basis to allow for a proper response strategy. This monitoring and/or analysis should include communication from other significant stakeholders including telephone calls from customers, the public, suppliers and bankers.
Irrespective of the level and frequency of contact with the news media, organizations and individuals need to be clear in their own minds of what they want to say before they start talking to reporters.
They need SOCKOS.
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