Are we creating misleading news reports?
Are organizations unwittingly killing influence and trust with the media?
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of award-winning media relations, over fifty national and regional awards.
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Organizations hate the media and I just finished a series on the topic at http://leonardsipes.com. Organization dysfunction is hurting media relations and the quality of news coverage.
Most readers agreed with me but some didn’t and that’s OK. It’s good to have a healthy debate. Some were critical that I was revealing a topic viewed as untouchable. “We have enough problems dealing with the media,” one said. “We don’t need a public discussion of our internal difficulties.”
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that spokespeople are becoming somewhat irrelevant. They need organizational support and better tools to do the job.
But how do you get organizational support if no one is willing to talk about it?
It’s clear that we need new strategies to deal with today’s media relations challenges. Readers want to know what works and this (and future articles) will address the state of the art, as I understand it after thirty-five years of talking to the media while winning over 50 awards in the process.
I can train people to efficiently handle media inquiries, but knowing those steps won’t help if your organization feeds you misinformation, or doesn’t supply you with data you need. There are insiders who will purposely mislead (lie?) to protect themselves.
But part of the problem is the way we communicate with the media.
You Don’t Build Relationships Through E-mails
Here’s my bottom-line; great spokespeople and smart reporters once ruled the world. Information fiercely flowed between them during on the record and off the record conversations.
The reporter often had inside information and data the spokesperson did not have. They agreed, disagreed, fought, compromised and shared evidence, and in the final analysis, great journalism was created.
The spokesperson was able to stop untruths from being printed, and she made sure the organization’s point of view was represented. She had to concede some negatives, but the truth came out.
The public got unvarnished facts; they had a good and honest understanding of the issues. The exchange of information may have felt like combat at times, but the final result was worth it.
But when I describe the exchange above to new spokespeople or reporters, I don’t believe they completely trust my version of events. “You had long conversations with reporters,” new spokespeople will ask? Hell, no one talks to reporters anymore except through e-mails and texts.
E-mails and texts “may” be the new norm for many mundane exchanges, but there will be multiple instances where conversations are the only way you can protect your organization and ensure the accuracy of the story.
You don’t build relationships through e-mails. You don’t build trust. Your ability to stop misinformation and to influence the story is built solely on your ability to gain the respect and trust of reporters and editors.
Want to kill influence and trust? Insist on an e-mail exchange as your only method of communication. Not only does it make you and the organization seem afraid, it lacks context, which kills the successful exchange of information.
State of News Coverage
The public is not being well served by the current state of media coverage.
A fundamental question, do policy makers and the public have a good understanding of issues through current news coverage?
My answer is no, and the breakdown of public trust is a byproduct of inadequate reporting.
Per Gallup, four in 10 Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historical lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012.
Per Pew, the public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).
Per Gallup, Americans’ confidence in most major U.S. institutions remains below the historical average. Only the military (72%) and small business (67%) — the highest-rated institutions in this year’s poll — are currently rated higher than their historical norms, based on the percentage expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution.
While trust is based on an array of issues far beyond news coverage, frustration with the media and all institutions is, in my opinion, a major part of the public’s lack of faith.
Quite simply, I believe that American’s feel misinformed by the media and many institutions.
Great News Coverage Used to be the Norm
During my 35-year career in media relations, I had the leeway necessary to make decisions about news coverage. It was my responsibility. I wasn’t micromanaged. We didn’t make media decisions by committee.
There used to be beat reporters who know everything about the subject matter. They knew their stuff. Spokespeople and beat reporters coproduced knowledgeable, informed articles.
It seems that for most beats except for technology, politics, business or sports, that era has passed.
There are Two Main Reasons for the Current State of News Coverage.
There are two main reasons for the current state of news coverage.
First is the decrease in the numbers of reporters.
The American Society of News Editors found its first double-digit decline in newsroom count since the Great Recession of seven years ago. Newsroom jobs dropped 10.4 percent — down to 32,900 full-time journalists in 2014. At its top, newsroom employment hit 56,900 in 1990.
The second reason is that spokespeople do not have the training, tools or institutional support to guide them through the media relation’s process.
To Get Great News Coverage
There are three basic points as to getting great news coverage:
- Great articles and reports are based on trust between reporters and spokespeople
- Great media coverage is based on reporters and spokespeople coproducing reports
- But there is a lack of training, courses and materials to guide spokespeople as to doing this
Most media training and materials do not deal with our realities. An example is off the record conversations. Most books and training urge spokespeople not to use them, which is nuts. Off the record conversations are often the lifeblood of great exchanges.
Another example is organization dysfunction where the spokesperson has to battle internal politics just to answer the simplest of questions.
Mistrust between organizations and the media will never be solved until reporters and organizational representatives come together to explore both problems and solutions.
What Needs to Happen for Media Coverage to Improve?
For media coverage to improve, there needs to be:
- More reporters covering beats
- Better raining for spokespeople
- Organizations that need to understand what works and why
- An agreement between organizations and reporters as to what needs to happen and why
Is Democracy at Stake?
It seems trite to suggest that the quality of news coverage is less than adequate and that reporters, editors and organizational representatives are the only people who can solve the problem.
It seems equally stale to question the value of reporting when polls imply that Americans expect little from news organizations and bureaucracies.
But our democracy depends on the press to tell us the truth. Without an understanding as to how news is produced and a commitment from both sides to create a better product, citizens and policymakers will never get the information they need to make informed decisions.
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com for the entire series.
Contact me at [email protected].