The Day The Media Got It Wrong [and the lesson it must learn from it]

The first thing I learned in J School was that being first to break a story was what every journalist strived for.  The second thing was that being first and wrong was just being wrong.  This was a challenge back in the 1990s when the internet was in its infancy; in a world of 24-hour rolling news and real-time internet it must be an almost impossible job.  Nevertheless, these qualities must be upheld otherwise it’s not journalism – it’s just rumour spreading.

Back in the 90s my News Editors wouldn’t have let me anywhere near a studio, let alone a live microphone, unless I could prove the accuracy of the information from two independent, and reliable, sources.  One had to be a news agency and, in many cases, the other had to be the police or other authority.  She’d rather be second than be wrong.  Getting it wrong not only brings in to question the future credibility of the news outlet, but is also fraught with legal difficulties.

There have been examples of news networks getting things wrong before: the wrong winners have been declared in US Presidential elections based on incorrect exit poll data, death tolls are often printed wrong and minor details of evolving stories are mis-reported  but, if as appears to be the case today, the perpetrator of a crime in Newtown, CT. is wrongly identified then it’s time the industry took a long hard look at itself and remembers the second rule of journalism.  If you’re first but wrong, you’re just wrong.

PR folk are from Venus, the media is from Mars [A response]

When I read the title of an article by Asohan Aryaduray entitled ‘PR folk are from Venus, the media is from Mars‘, I was intrigued. Hasn’t this story been written many times before? Isn’t it already widely accepted that the majority of PR people don’t understand journalists… and vice versa? Haven’t both sides come to a mutually workable arrangement, because they have realized and admitted – often through clenched teeth – that they need the other? What could this article add to the debate?

Actually, quite a lot!  Two sentences from the article jumped off the page: “…there’s still a yawning chasm when it comes to [PRs] understanding the media” and “[too many journalists] have allowed PRs to set the agenda”.

I’ve long said that the majority of agency PRs [and their in-house counterparts and most clients] fail to understand how the media works. This is increasingly the case as the media landscape becomes more complex and multi-platform. One example of this is deadlines.

The majority of clients I’ve worked with in the last 15 years haven’t understood that journalists don’t call up looking for comment with a 15 minute deadline because they want to. They’re also not doing it ‘just’ because they can. It’s because they’ve been given an equally tight deadline by their editor and being first to break or cover a story has a significant impact on their business. Most PRs don’t understand that being able to help a journalist to meet his deadline wins friends in the media.  Sure, they like beer and dinners at nice restaurants, but if you really want to earn their respect then helping them to be the first publication in their space to break or respond to a story will mean you’ll be top of their list the next time they need help meeting their copy deadline.

I also agree with Asohan that PRs have long been allowed to set the media agenda – far more than they should be. There are a number of reasons for this: one is the increasing workload that journalists are faced with. Where, a few years ago, they had a weekly or monthly magazine to produce, plus a newsletter or two, most journalists are now faced with the prospect of hourly deadlines to ensure they’re covering breaking news stories online, the creation of multimedia content and managing personal and corporate Twitter, Facebook, Google +… [insert social networks as appropriate] accounts. The majority also still have to produce a weekly or monthly print magazine. This is why journalists have been happy to allow companies that understand this to lead the agenda.

Actually, it’s not so much being happy about it. Perhaps ‘tolerate’ is a more appropriate description.

Another reason some PRs have been able to set their own agenda is because there are a few who DO actually understand what journalists want, and have been able to take advantage of the increased workload facing the media and its requirement for content.  They also understand the audience that a publication is targeting, they get that company promotional material doesn’t constitute a story, they provide independent third-party quotes, striking high definition images and multimedia [when did you last send audio to a broadcaster to accompany your press release?]. They also draft their press releases to tell a story, rather than simply promoting their client or its product or service.  These individuals have been welcomed by the media with open arms.

So, while PR folks are mostly from Venus and the media is from Mars, there are a few from both sides that have worked out how they can work effectively with their counterparts.  If you want to help your client or your organization then the most effective way is to understand the  challenges they face and find ways to help them to overcome them.