In situational media relations, the perspectives of Government communicators and journalists (journos) may differ regarding conventional communications methods. Sometimes these differences are gaping on both macro and micro levels – that is, within Government agencies and news organizations.
Evolution of the media landscape
As the 21st century media landscape evolves at light-speed, with the increasing convergence of digital and mobile technology, the rules of the game are likewise changing — albeit slowly at times. Media relations professionals who choose to bury their heads in the sand do so at the peril of bad and/or inaccurate reporting about their organization. Contemporary journalism standards are no longer defined solely by a few duty-bound media elite who set noble rules for reporting that are universally applicable.
That was more likely the case throughout much of the 20th century when only a few truly independent national broadcast news networks and influential newspapers dictated the rules of engagement. Even then, however, journalists still made major gaffes on the most critically important stories.
Undue influence of Corporate America on newsrooms
But today, the tables of sound journalism have turned in many regards. In addition to the proliferation of online news and social media, there is also undue influence exerted by corporate CEOs and boards of directors who run mega-companies which own the news media (such as Disney, Viacom, and General Electric, to name a few). Unfortunately, many corporate media owners are only concerned with posting profits, via high ratings and ad revenue. The profit or greed factor of Corporate America does not bode well for the sound journalism of yesteryear.
Too often, corporate interference in newsrooms trump fair and accurate reporting. Thus, the gold standard of conventional reporting is not always practiced in today’s cut-throat, 24/7 digital media climate. Yes, the tectonic plates of journalism are slowly shifting. One simpy needs to look closely below the surface to come to this realization. In fact, I would argue that it may be naive for PR professionals to give reporters the socalled benefit-of-the-doubt on a blanket basis.
This means that communicators need to be extra vigilant in holding reporters accountable for accurate copy and content. There are too many newsrooms in which reporters and bloggers shoot first and ask questions later. The sensationalism of the story sometimes takes priority over the news gathering and reporting process — when it should be the other way around.
Getting the story right in the first instance
With the explosion of social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, plus YouTube, the news cycle has radically reverted from the old sound standards. More often than not, the 21st century media beast is narrowly focused only on breaking news all the time. Often it’s a race to see which media outlet can get the story out first — not which media outlet can get it out first correctly. While this may have always been the case to some extent, it is even more pronounced today because there are so many different ways in which news is disseminated and consumed.
Therefore, with this mind, media relations practitioners should make extra efforts to ensure that reporters get the story right in the first instance — before it has the potential to go viral, not afterwards. Don’t wait for a preventable mess that you and your agency will have to laboriously clean up. Be more proactive in shaping major stories, even if that entails previewing copy and content.
This is not to say that good journalism is nonexistant. There’s just less of it today than in ther past. Of course, Government communicators don’t always have the time to preview stories because of juggling multiple media requests and crisis communications simultaneously. But if the story is being reported by a major media outlet with broad influence, then it makes sense to preview it — especially if your agency head or other high-level officials were interviewed, or if one is dealing with an investigative reporter looking to dig up dirt. Government communicators work for the Government, not for the news media — which today works for Corporate America, and thus are not always truly independent (especially when compared and contrasted to prior standards).
Don’t be afraid of previewing a story
At a minimum, there’s nothing wrong with viewing draft copy and content if a reporter offers it up. If that’s not the case, then don’t be shy about asking major media to read back quotes from agency leadership or specific content that may be controversial or complex. After all, agencies rely on their communications team to produce positive press results — even if such expectations are not always realistic. While communicators know full well that the media have ultimate control of the editorial process, leaders within Government don’t always appreciate this inconvenient truth (as Al Gore might put it).
Again, it’s the communicator’s butt on the line, as well as that of their Government agency. This all has a significant effect on the public perception of Government as an institution.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that media accuracy extends well beyond the domain of any Government agency or organization. Ultimately, it is media consumers — the general public — who end up receiving bad information that is taken out of context by journos, but nonetheless is still taken at face value by the public.
That’s why professional communicators should not shy away from previewing stories, if and when possible. This can only help reporters produce more quality copy and content. This approach comes under the concept of help me (the communicator), help you (the media).
Better informing the public
It’s important to remember that most media reports concerning Government are negative — which is a well documented historical fact, not a fleeting trend. This lends itself to public blame, unfair criticism, and poor public approval of Government and public servants.
Thus, the primary reason for going the extra mile to ensure factual accuracy and objectivity in reporting is to better inform the general public about the good work of Government — which is usually at odds with the objectives of today’s journalists.
If previewing a story means getting more fair and balanced coverage — not to mention positive press — then communicators in Government should not have a problem with it. The real problem today is too many unscrupulous reporters trying to get news out before doing their homework and leg work. The result is bad reporting.
In essence, while reporters may need to maintain checks on Government and the private sector, communicators likewise need to apply theses same standards to news media.
“Media Relations: Shaping the Story — Part 1”
“Conducting Media Interviews: Ten Tips
“Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips”
* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.