Public Relations: Aggravating Media – Understanding Them:
A high-powered lawyer sat next to me at a civic club meeting and asked, “Why are the news media so negative?”
The night before a media-training session, the vice president of an HMO asked, “Why do the media beat up on my industry?”
At a session with about 14 educators from a Florida college, a single issue dominated: one local newspaper reporter. They wanted to know how to get her off their backs.
As a former reporter who now tries to help companies protect their reputations, I too get frustrated when our best efforts occasionally seem cast in unnecessarily negatively news light. Just six months after leaving a 23-year journalism career, I found myself perplexed when former reporting brethren would hammer a client. I could hardly believe my own dismay since most news people I know are as conscientious about their work as you and I are about ours. Furthermore, most scholars say today’s American journalists are the most objective ever.
So why are articles often harsh and we business folk so wary and distrusting? Personal experience, experiences of friends, and occasional horror stories of unfairness are part of it, but I think mostly we don’t understand or forget what news is intended to be.
Before I give you my take on what news is, first here is what it is not. It is not about protecting or damaging your reputation, serving or disserving the community, or making anyone or anything look good or bad – although those are collateral outcomes.
News is about the abnormal. Think about it. If the media told you of happenings that are the norm, the expected, and the typical; you wouldn’t watch, read or listen. You would say, “I’m busy; I don’t have time for this.” When I was still in the media, my wife told me that if the lead story for the late TV newscast was of no consequence to her then she would assume the rest would be the same and she would watch Arsenio Hall. That’s the point. An event or issue must break through to people or they won’t pay attention. It is not that traffic flows smoothly; it is that it is snarled. It is not that countless airliners take off and land safely; it’s that one has crashed. It is not that your company is humming along nicely; it is that you have stumbled. The stumble makes it newsworthy. It is abnormal.
Certainly, abnormal “good” is newsworthy. You expand your business and add jobs. You create a product that customers crave. Your community attracts a major employer. The President visits your college. A research breakthrough might save lives.
Unfortunately, there is more abnormal “bad” available than abnormal “good,” and it is easier to cover. I also believe there is a slight anti-business bias among many reporters (trade press excepted) born more out of naiveté than intentionality. I was like that until I started my own company and learned the difficulty of succeeding in the unforgiving world of capitalism.
Importantly, the public relishes the abnormal world of news. People may complain that the media are too negative, but they in fact reward such reporting by watching or reading it, and penalize those who don’t provide it. Example: Following a calamitous police assault on barricaded protesters in Philadelphia in 1986 (11 people killed, 65 buildings burned), one TV station tried to soften its “sensational” news image by moderating coverage. Viewers deserted the station for competitors who provided every detail. Ratings and ad revenue plummeted for the station trying to do the right thing. There’s no incentive to be the good news guys. In fact, a Wall St. Journal article a few years back said those in the good news business usually go out of business.
In conclusion, there is a popular notion that good PR is better than good advertising. If so, businesspeople have to understand who they’re dealing with when working with reporters. As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “…if you do not know the plans of your competitors, you cannot make informed alliances.”