Made 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.
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.