Media relations and the 24-second news cycle

prconf2009Made it to the PRSA conference hall in time to catch a session on Sunday afternoon. Since I’m back to teaching the Media Relations class at Kent State, I decided to take in Mike McDougall’s session called “Working at the Speed of ‘New’: Secrets for Conquering and Surviving the 24-second News Cycle.”

I’m a sucker for titles with colons in them. Must be the academic in me.

Mike, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at Bausch & Lomb, offered some great advice for media relations practitioners, but the media landscape he described worries me – a lot.

A summary

Monitor the media landscape 24-7. We all know that’s important, but do we honestly track stories about clients, issues and competitors thoroughly enough? Here’s why you should, Mike says:

  • Journalists are simply unprepared to covered most of the stories that come their way. Staffs are smaller and less experienced these days, so Mike suggests feeding the journalists simplified content that helps them do their jobs — ready-made content. Few journalists have the time, interest or ability to dig deeply into a story. Very often they’ll run with what you give them. (See why I’m worried?)
  • Journalists get it wrong — a lot. And fewer take the time to check their facts. Mike showed examples of how incorrect and unconfirmed information finds its way into stories, then spreads like H1N1. And it’s not just the tabloid press who’s guilty. Examples included stories from CNN, the New York Times and the BBC.
  • When the story is wrong, jump in immediately and make the adjustments. Phone the journalists responsible and seek corrections — before the story spreads across the Web and makes its way into print, too. This process can make for some sleepless nights.

Mike suggested a couple of tactics that — while they may be strategically sound — also raise some ethical questions. He made two key points that resonated with me:

  • Displace stories as soon as they happen. When your company is the subject of negative press, be ready to push new content that will help push the negative press from page one of the search engines. The story you push needn’t be related to the negative coverage, but thanks to the algorithms of Google, it will dilute the bad stuff. Mike suggested using similar tactics to displace positive coverage on your competitors —sometimes using a ready-made evergreen story.
  • Surveys are newsmakers. OK, they always have been. But the lightning-fast news cycle makes it more likely that media will jump on that survey story, even if supporting data are weak. So if your sample is small, don’t sweat it. Mike suggests framing your survey questions to meet your organization’s needs, a statement I hope puts my academic colleagues on edge. Bad research is bad research — no matter how you use it.

Media in this “24-second news cycle” are more concerned with getting the story out than with carefully vetting the facts. Call me crazy, but I find it troubling that we would use that to our advantage. I worry that advocacy takes precedence over truth.

In Mike defense, he twice mentioned the importance of ethics and truth, and expressed his belief that good media outcomes begin with solid relationship building. But the idea of pushing content ONLY to displace bad news or competitive news is less than transparent. And building news around survey data we know to be shaky — I can’t recommend that to anyone.

I left the session thinking about the intersection of client interest and public interest. And we all know about that conflict of loyalties. Or we should.

8 Responses to Media relations and the 24-second news cycle

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik and Evan Roberts, Jeff Davis. Jeff Davis said: worth tracking – @BillSledzik covering the PRSA Conference. No wi-fi so no mobile tweets, but blog posts here: http://bit.ly/3GBQVj #PRSA09 […]

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Not sure I’ve ever published 2 blog posts in one day. And there’s more to come. http://bit.ly/3GBQVj http://bit.ly/259mB9 #prsa09…

  3. Let’s go with TODAY’s journalist get it wrong and are unprepared. The Phoenix Business Journal used to be a bastion of information. Then refer back to TODAY.

    Now let’s look at “Surveys are newsmakers”

    A man I see in my gym, a computer geek, not a journalist, says he is sending out FABRICATED surveys and they get used. This is now “stock-in-trade” for many public relations firms.

    News media are running these without double checking. I’ll take Mon-Fri of this week’s online Phoenix Business Journal to illustrate:

    Monday:
    Half of Arizonans avoiding large crowds because of flu
    Travel industry could add 90,000 jobs in 2010
    Airlines expect 4% drop in Thanksgiving travel
    Polls: Majority oppose House health plan, inclusion of illegals, abortions
    Zillow: U.S. home prices stabilizing, Phoenix outlook not as rosy
    International travel spending up 1% in August

    I was going to do Mon-Fri, but why bother. You get the gist. Surveys are used without ANY checking. May as well make up your own, place your organization’s name in it and charge your client what inexperienced PR practitioners mistakenly call “ROI” for all the free advertising.

  4. emansand says:

    B&L’s survey of people with astigmatism is one example of what looks to me like good old PR spin…
    ” A recent survey conducted by Decision Analyst (an independent research firm in Arlington, Texas) and sponsored by Bausch & Lomb revealed that 4 out of 10 consumers incorrectly believe that their astigmatism prevents them from wearing contact lenses…”
    So for those ignoramuses out there who have astigmatism, get your contact lenses now!
    It would make more sense (in terns of legitimate consumer news) to survey ophthalmologists and optometrists on this question–except that the answers might not conform to the strategic needs of a company that makes contact lenses.

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks to Marketing $ociologist and emansand for bringing some evidence to support my concerns. So long as the media are negligent (or stupid) enough to be bamboozled by pseudo-data, it will continue to make headlines. But I was troubled that a speaker at PRSA’s national conference would suggest this tactic.

  6. Mr. Sledzik:

    As for a public relations professional advocating “bamboozling” the public and media with fraudulent surveys at a national professional conference-that’s why in MY day, public relations practitioners were required to have 10 years on the media. It was author Tony Hillerman who taught my “Ethics of Journalism” class in the mid-’70s. Having been gate-keepers of information, PR pros from the media side usually have high ethical standards.

    Today’s PR professionals are taught by people who have never seen the inside of a news room. Today’s PR pro brags about the six internships they’ve done with lame PR professionals who taught them to send out press releases, not define their market. Few have read Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia manifesto.

    So both the quality of journalists and public relations professionals have deteriorated greatly; just in the first decade of the 21st Century. Reason I have abandoned the use of public relations professional and coined Marketing $ociologist. Both journalists and public relations people are as endangered as photographic film processors or typewriter repairmen.

  7. Check this – http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles/2009/11/15/20091115biz-lepaw1116.html

    In my day as a journalist, we called that advertising and threw the ad flack out of the newsroom for even suggesting we do a free editorial ad in exchange for paid advertising. This was displayed on the FRONT PAGE in the highest spot – with a photo – on AZCentral.com. This is criminal.

    Also, we NEVER ran an article without more than three different sources – this story only features the advertiser as a source, I believe.

    I’ve run away from traditional media because of this misuse of the media. I’m not the only one. It is things like this that has KILLED traditional media.

    The newspaper, publisher, editor, journalist and public relations flack who pitched the story should all be hung from a tall oak tree for the abuse of public trust that comes with being a journalist. This is no different than a government official accepting a bribe. Something you don’t read about anymore because today’s journalist are too busy putting press releases on dog groomers on the front page. What do they do with their time? Kanoodle with PR people?

    If I appeared appalled, I have communicated my emotion. Yet at a PRSA conference, or during the awards competition, this PR practitioner is probably held in highest regard by other professionals for the success of “ROI” on this story.

  8. […] most popular post, the one about Mike McDougall’s 24-second news cycle, drew just 5 human comments and 111 views. Key message in that post was about ethics in media […]

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