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.
It doesn’t happen often, but it is refreshing to read extended feature stories that journalists spend weeks or months preparing. Mostly happens in magazines now, but every so often a major paper will host a three or five part series and I find these really rewarding.
Thanks for the comment, Samuel. Yes, I agree that it’s always refreshing to see, read and hear good journalism — which communicators in Government appreciate more than most people. The problem is, that at time goes on, there appears to be less of it. Print media are a dying breed that will eventually be extinct. That’s just where the media world is heading in the age of information technology and corporate control of news. It’s sad, but true. And the sooner that Government communicators recognize and act upon this unfortunate reality, the better for everyone.
Following are five additional points for Government communicators to consider when deciding how to best shape a story:
1) Reporters who share draft copy/content with sources DON’T diminish the profession of journalism. If a reporter asks a source to preview a story — or vice versa — it’s to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of the information disseminated to the public. That’s a triple win outcome (for media, Govt, and news consumers).
2) What degrades journalism most is not reporters who let sources preview stories, but reporting that is factually inaccurate or libelous, overly sensational, and subjective and opinionated. If sharing draft copy with sources was such an abhorrent media practice, then more reporters would be fired for doing it, and fewer reporters would actually engage in the practice — especially among leading media outlets. But that’s not always the case.
3) Govt communicators, and PR pros generally, should NOT refuse a reporter’s request to voluntarily let them preview a story. Moreover, sources who engage in reviewing draft copy/content are not insecure. To the contrary, these PR pros strive to secure fair and balanced reporting for their agency and, hopefully, obtain a positive result in turn. As the late, great Italian diplomat, historian and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) once noted, sometimes the end justifies the means. This concept works both ways for journos and PR folks alike.
4) Professional communicators don’t necessarily need to sanitize quotes, however, we may want to provide additional info to balance out a story (if provided with the chance to review draft content). Moreover, reporters have been commonly known to misquote sources and use info and quotes out of context. Thus, just because a source provides a reporter with factual info and informed quotes does not automatically mean the info will end up in the final story verbatim, or even at all. Thus, it’s incumbent upon Govt communicators to do their best in ensuring a story will reflect well on their agency – and, in turn, Government generally.
5) Sometimes there is a journalistic gap between the processes for information gathering and reporting, compared to the editorial/editing process within the heart of a newsroom. That’s when the ultimate final decisions are made on where and whether to cut copy, rearrange quotes, and how prominently to place a story (like front page A1 versus the Metro section). I’ve observed situations in which a journo may do a great job of information gathering and initial reporting, but editor(s) changes copy/content to the detriment of objectivity and accuracy.
I read on Yahoo yesterday that the Social Security Administration will be “bone dry” by 2040. This is not the case. The trust funds likely will be exhausted, but revenues still will be coming in sufficient to fund benefits at something around 70%. So this “journalist” wrote an entire story based on a false premise. Meanwhile, I can’t even figure out how to complain. I can’t find the names of any of the Yahoo “editors.” The “reporter” doesn’t reveal his contact information. This kind of thing scares the hell out of me. Journalists have a lot of power and they need to be more careful using it.
Meanwhile, I’m a former journalist and I NEVER would have considered offering to let a source see my draft. I’m surprised this has become the norm.
Thanks for the feedback, Regina. This is just another example of good journalism gone bad. Think of all the other people who must have read,, shared, tweeted that story (etc.) who are now left with the wrong impression and inadvertently spreading bad information. You should find out if the reporter spoke to anyone at SSA. If that doesn’t work, try googling the name of the journo and you should be able to get his/her contact info, or persist with contacting Yahoo News. Then diplomatically take the journo to the woodshed, lest they mis-report on your agency again. Another thing to remember about bad reporting is that first impressions count — and last with the public. Good luck with that situation which, unfortunately, occurs all too frequently these days.
Some have said they think today’s journalists mantain the so-called “fundamentals” — honesty, accuracy, objectivity, etc. Well, that depends on which media outlet and which specific print, broadcast or online reporter/writer/anchor/host one is dealing with.
It never ceases to amaze me how routinely reporters still get the names of sources wrong. This is one of the first fundamentals one is taught in journalism school (or at least when I received my degree). A reporter or news outlet that spells one’s name incorrectly will have to print or air a correction at a minimum, or face a libel lawsuit in a worst case scenario.
Also, how about blatant plagiarism? This is still a big problem, even at the nation’s leading news organizations. The latest disgraced perpetrator, with a global following, is TV host and commentator Fareed Zakaria, who was just suspended by CNN and Time magazine.
A few other prominent reporters at esteemed media who have joined the Journalism Hall of Shame are:
Jayson Blair, former NY Times
Stephen Glass, former New Republic
Jack Kelley, former of USA Today
There’s actually a pretty long list, the above is just a high-profile sampling.
And what about corrections, clarifications and retractions by the news media? If one added up the cumulative total number of mistakes made by reporters on any given today — per media corrections, etc. — it would easily be in the hundreds, if not thousands.
So when folks refer to a purported present day foundation of media fundamentals, I say the jury is still out. Moreover, if I’m a juror, the verdict is guilty as charged!
The proof is in the pudding, as they say.