I’ve been following the personal blog of CSO Online’s Bill Brenner for a little while now. I enjoy his insights into human nature and mental illness, but there are other elements that I appreciate too, in particular his experiences as a newsroom journalist.
That’s why his recent post about (pseudo?) reporter Judith Miller struck a professional nerve. Having moved from trade journalism to public relations, I was especially struck by this point:
When there is a real danger people need to know about, you have to report it. That’s when people need to hear the scary truth. But I do mind, because the fear she threw around was not based on truth… if you are the writer, you should care about how people will react.
Then again, if you’re willing to write lies, you’re not really going to care about that, are you?
I have faced a lot of skepticism over my motivations in the past 10 years. To cops, I was “the media,” even if I was writing for their publications. Newsroom journalists on listservs made snide comments about “PR fluff.”
These days, I worry when journalists don’t get back to me. Did my article suggestion not meet their needs, or do they think the story I just pitched them is a cover for a sales pitch? And it always makes me cringe a little when I see the occasional tweet about marketing manipulation and PR spin.
The business of inspiring (re)action
The skeptical are right to be. The spin machine can be ugly, especially in the face of a crisis. The problem isn’t that we don’t care how people will react. The problem is that we’re paid to care about making them react a certain way.
Sometimes the two converge, and that’s when you get great PR and great journalism. But sometimes we care more about making readers and viewers react, than we do about how they actually feel.
Journalism, just as much as any PR client, is in business. Journalists sell newspapers and magazines, or pull in ratings, on the strength of their storytelling and how well it adheres to editorial guidelines. Both types of messaging are about building and sustaining a brand, which every good businessperson knows is about trust.
Judith Miller and her ilk take shortcuts, go for short-term reaction rather than long-term trust. On a lesser scale, but no better at trust-building, are those who are chronically too overworked or lazy or demotivated to spend time getting every fact right.
Some might say this makes them a perfect fit for PR. How many times have you read a white paper that referred vaguely to “statistics say…” without citing the actual research, a name and date if not a link to go with it?
But for one problem: in the last few years, since the economy coupled with social networking broadsided the media industry, the PR-journalism symbiosis has changed. We still depend on one another, but we also compete with each other.
Consider: fewer journalists at struggling publications means more PR pros are competing to provide the content. That makes it harder for us to get our clients’ stories told. Conveniently, social media provides an alternative outlet, but needs a constant stream of content to stay in followers’ minds. Therefore, we encourage our clients to become publishers of their own content.
Brand journalism requires high standards
That’s because ideally, our clients’ content provides better context for media as well as buyers. When we pitch a reporter who likes what we’ve had to say, s/he can come back to our website with its blog and videos and white papers and infographics, and use them for the article s/he’s working on. Or s/he can find them via search, including social media monitoring, and be the one to make first contact.
That’s why it’s incumbent on us to hold our content, which some call “brand journalism,” to the same high editorial standards as journalism does. Truth, as everyone knows, is subjective, based on human interpretation. Good PR is about helping our clients and their customers understand each other’s truths, and adjusting our messages accordingly, with the end goal in mind of inspiring action — sales.
Making it easier on them is a form of building trust. At some point, buyers and journalists alike take a leap of faith: they choose to believe what they’ve researched, and go forward with the purchase or the story. Shortening that leap is what will keep them coming back. Here are some ideas:
- Research, whether from a vendor or from academia, is constantly being tested, refined, even disproved. We need to be transparent about showing what has changed and how, whether we are referring to someone else’s research, or promoting our client’s own.
- The phrase “statistics show” is condescending when it stands by itself. Treat white papers like blogs long enough to link to the research that shows the point you’re trying to make. Let your reader draw his or her own conclusions. It will make for better story-telling.
- It’s the job of a good journalist to find opposing as well as complementary points of view to balance what our clients present as truth. Use these as opportunities to drive future research, content and business forward.
- Much as been written about the power of social media in correcting reporters’ errors, which can be important to reputation management both in and outside of a crisis. Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and your company blog are all good places for this.
- Use journalists’ own fact-checking tools for content — and remember that fact-checking still carries with it a certain degree of bias, as you look for facts that support your argument.
“Brandwashing” is alive and well, unfortunately. But if we want our content to build trust with prospects and customers, only taking the time to get our facts as right as we can — and to engage in discussion when people disagree — will keep our relationships in balance and both our businesses in the black.