Managing the media: practical steps to ensure a winning strategy
We live in the era of a 24 hour news cycle where the media is a monster which has to be fed constantly – whether online, on television or in boring old newspapers.
It is also the era of the citizen journalist in which everyone with a smart-phone camera can ‘file copy’, which may end up in the local or national media if it tickles the fancy of a news team, by providing grainy footage of some misbehaving celebrity, ghastly crime or cataclysmic weather event.
As a consequence, any organisation can potentially find itself at the eye of a media storm through the foolish or negligent actions of one of its staff or the unexpected failure of one of its products. It is as well to be prepared in case this happens because panic and stress can reign when you are being besieged by cunning journalists and photographers hunting down a story.
In these circumstances, unwanted and unflattering media attention cannot be avoided totally but by taking some common sense steps a measure of control can at least be exercised over the situation:
- Stay alert to events which may generate media attention. If you have a communications team, they should be doing this as a matter of course.
- If you are telephoned or door-stepped by a journalist, don’t get drawn into an on-the-spot interview. Instead, politely ask them to send you the questions they want you to answer in an email. This eliminates the prospect of being caught off-guard and giving an answer you may live to regret. It also creates a paper audit trail so you can track what happened and when (very useful if things end up in any sort of legal action). And, of course, it provides the opportunity to give considered answers to the media questions.
- Identify one person as your point of contact with the media and make sure all enquiries, approaches and developments are fed into him or her. A well-established journalistic technique is to divide and rule by approaching different people in the same organisation and then exploiting inconsistent or contradictory positions. If they are confined to dealing with one person that reduces the prospect of the organisation looking like a leaky ship.
- If the subject matter of the story could give rise to potential legal or disciplinary action or issues, then make sure you involve your lawyers at an early stage so that the information you put out to the media does not land you in a bigger mess – through breach of confidentiality, invasion of privacy, libel or otherwise. Your lawyers can also take steps to correct inaccurate, misleading or distorted coverage and curb intimidating or harassing conduct by journalists (at least in the mainstream media) through complaints under the IPSO Code of Conduct.
- Accept that you cannot deal with everything which is published. The internet is an open ended global publication tool and online coverage of newsworthy stories can seem relentless and overwhelming. However, most of it goes unread so concentrate on the most credible mainstream publishers and trust the average reader to sort the wheat from the chaff.
- Draw some comfort from the fact that the mainstream media is trying to prove that it has reformed itself following the Leveson Inquiry and does not need to have statutory control imposed on it. It is also aware of the traction which Trump’s dismissal of so much of the mainstream media as ‘fake news’ has gained with large swathes of the population who have become sickened by the media’s arrogance and agendas. Therefore, the mainstream newspapers and broadcasters are trying to show that they really are responsible and trustworthy and so are more responsive to complaints now than they were in the past, as well as trying to play by the legal rules. This may not last so take advantage of it while you can!
- Finally, don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a war of words with an opponent. It allows the media to rub their hands, stand back and enjoy the show. And it can give ‘legs’ to a story which would otherwise be a one day wonder. Open, honest and boring communication with the media is the best way of curtailing the length of time you and your organisation spend in the spotlight!
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