Managing the media

Written by: Richard Willsher Posted: 03/10/2019

BL64_managing media illoEveryone loves a good news story – until the journalists come knocking at their door. The temptation is to pull down the shutters, but engaging with the media in a constructive way can yield fruitful results

Why bother with the media at all? Aren’t they just out to sell newspapers with sensational stories? Don’t they just make money from digging the dirt?

There are plenty of people who think this way. You may even be one of them. However, the very same sceptics will have their favourite newspapers, TV or radio stations and websites. When they look at them, they tacitly recognise the benefit of useful and well researched and presented information. 

They may even feel better briefed and follow such leads towards business opportunities, or alternatively avoid situations that the press has highlighted as potentially risky. That’s why understanding how to deal with the media matters. 

Lisa Downes, PR Director at Liquid PR, summarises this succinctly. “There is a critical role for third-party, unbiased endorsement,” she says. “Any business can praise itself for a job well done, or big up a new product or service, but if an unbiased journalist states it, this can alter a consumer’s perception of an organisation.” 

And so, as Matt Tabb, Global Head of Corporate Communications at professional services provider Equiom, explains: “By keeping the communication lines open, doing interviews, talking to [the media] at every opportunity and investing in media training for your staff, you will see your business’s visibility grow. 

“This will spread from the media through to word of mouth locally and worldwide. The end result is a more widespread and positive reputation, which ultimately leads to increased business.”

No medium is an island

There may have been a time when business activity in the Crown Dependencies was covered by the islands’ press and did not go much further, but that’s not the case today. Now, what’s reported in any part of the world is instantly available globally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

It’s important to understand the role played by the islands in the global business landscape and how local businesses can manage and gain from exposure in the global media. 

“The media agenda off-island will, typically, seek a particular line,” according to Nichole Culverwell, Director at Black Vanilla, a communications firm with operations in Guernsey, Jersey and the UK. 

“It depends on the publication, but the financial services industry media will be very cognisant of the role the Channel Islands plays in the global financial services industry and will probably be interested to hear what firms here have to say. 

“Businesses here are well aware of how the islands’ financial services might be seen. But there’s also a confidence in what they do, and that confidence means the islands are addressing any issues raised. And yes, sometimes the headlines are unfounded.” 

What journalists want

Understanding how journalists work is an important aspect of gaining from good media coverage. The media’s role is to seek out the stories that their target audience wants to read. As a clue to the ingredients that make a useful story, the TRUTH mnemonic can be helpful (see box). 

“While a small number of media outlets and journalists may not have your best interests at heart, the majority of the media is only interested in getting the facts,” Tabb says. “If you feel they are agitated or aggressive with you, it is probably because they think you are hiding something, not telling the whole story and ultimately wasting their time. 

“A lot of journalists ask tough questions. The aim is not necessarily to trip you up, but to get to the facts. The key is to have stated intentions for a media response and key messages you want to convey. The important thing is to be prepared for every potential question and not lie.”

Downes agrees, adding: “The lack of control when working with a media outlet can be disconcerting for some. The most effective relationships between businesses and media are those based on mutual professional respect, when both parties recognise they can work together and both achieve their own objectives. 

“For the media, having reliable, go-to sources who are willing to share their experiences is invaluable, while positive media coverage can help a business to achieve its own communications objectives, be it increased awareness, understanding or enquiries or sales.”  

How bad is it?

All well and good, but sometimes relationships don’t run smoothly and they can fall on hard times. This is especially so as a key reporting mantra among journalists is: “How bad is it? And how bad is it going to get?” 

The journalist’s duty is a get to the truth, including the gory details. Think about the financial crisis and the Lehman Brothers saga, or BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or, closer to home right now, wouldn’t we all like to know how Brexit will pan out? It is human nature to want to prepare for the worst. 

Orchard PR Strategic Consultant Lindsey Freeman offers some advice. “Even if you really cannot say anything about a situation, ‘no comment’ is never an acceptable answer,” she says. “There are countless other ways to deal with a sensitive or confidential situation. ‘No comment’ just fuels the natural instinct in a journalist that there’s more to the story and it’s likely they will pass this point of view to their readers, listeners or viewers. 

“The public are more likely to believe and remember negative interactions, and opinions are hard to change once they’re formed, so it’s much better to be open, honest and authentic. Face the media, even if it’s just to tell them you can’t tell them anything. Hold fast and explain your position.”

Allan Watts, Director at communications agency Orchid, adds a further note of caution. “It’s like all relationships,” he says. “Sometimes you just hit a rocky patch and sometimes it’s like a match made in heaven. I am much more comfortable when the relationship is slightly hands off because I think everyone behaves more professionally. If you get too cosy, you can forget that you each have a job to do.”

BL64_managing media illo2Do-it-yourself

Most businesses have websites. They may have a presence on Facebook and/or Twitter. They may produce research reports, publish thought leadership, screen YouTube footage and otherwise engage in self-publishing to promote their cause. 

The beauty of it is that you can control the output. These are all valid parts of the communication mix and all journalists benefit from such sources, either using the material published, or following it up with the sponsor to learn more.

While there are now more platforms for businesses to get their message across than ever, they all have their advantages and disadvantages, argues Adam Riddell, PR Director at Crystal Public Relations. 

“Owned platforms – whether that’s social media, websites, microsites or virtual newsrooms – are increasingly searchable and shared by third parties, including traditional media, which also have their own owned platforms. So, you end up with a web of communication – and ignoring one over another would be a mistake.” 

The value of PR

As that web of communications becomes more complex, a guiding hand from an internal PR department or external PR agency becomes all the more important. 

Not all business executives see it that way, however. Research from Releasd,based on a survey among 300 senior stakeholders outside the communications function, has found that about four out of 10 executives do not have a good understanding of what the PR function does within their business.

A similar proportion don’t think the PR function delivers good value to the business. Among those who do understand PR, 80% think it does deliver good value. 

The usual argument against becoming more visible in the media is that it’s difficult to measure what value you’re getting from your investment of time, effort and money. Another is that you can’t control the media, which is a potential risk. 

But it is often when things go wrong that businesses understand they could have managed their media exposure much better. High-profile examples of catastrophic media management include Gerald Ratner of the formerly eponymous high-street jewellery company, who described his own firm’s products as “total crap” in a speech to the Institute of Directors in London in 1991. You can still see this speech on YouTube 28 years on. 

BP’s Tony Hayward’s words after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in which 11 people died is another example. Among many comments for which he was criticised, he was reported as saying: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

Careful preparation and cultivation of good media relations brings benefits to a business – in good times and in bad. You can’t control the media, but you can manage how you work with it in the best interests of your business.

The search for TRUTH

What makes a story? What are journalists looking for? Before you fire off yet another press release that no media outlet is going to be interested in, think about TRUTH: 

T   Topical – Why should a media outlet cover your story right now?
R  Relevant – Is your story of interest to readers and visitors to this particular news outlet?
U  Unusual – Is your story novel, new, interesting or out of the ordinary?
T  Trouble – Is your story about a problem of some sort and/or about how to fix it?
H  Human – Does your story speak to and/or is it about people?

 


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