Five out of ten journalists mislead you

uk_newspapers_montage-300x176Anyone who has heard me lecture about the media will know that I have problems with a lot of journalists. Part of it is just the work I did- crisis PR tends to put relationships under pressure, inevitably. But, I do have concerns about how much media bias, media framing, and moral panics are at work, influencing what the public thinks.

Want to test yourself? Take this little quiz:

1. How many lone parents do you think there are out of every 100 people in Britain?

2. For every £100 spent on the Welfare Budget, what percentage is fraudulantly claimed?

3.What percentage of the UK’s population

  • is Muslim?
  • is unemployed?
  • is Black or Asian?
  • is aged 65 or over?
  • are Christian?
  • are immigrants (ie not born in the UK)?

You may be shocked to read what people thought were the answers to the above questions compared with the actual facts. According to IPSOS-MORI’s end of year review,  the 1,000 people surveyed as “representative of the UK’s public” answered as follows:

1.  28 out of 100 parents are “lone parents” (the truth is 3).

2. Out of every £100 spent on the welfare budget, £24 is claimed fraudulently (the truth is 70 pence)

3. Out of the UK population, the respondents thought that the percentage that is

  • Muslim is 22% (the truth is 5%)
  • Unemployed is 22% (the truth is 8%)
  • Black or Asian is 30% (the truth is 11%)
  • Aged 65+ is 36% (the truth is 16%)
  • Christian is 34% (the truth is 59%)
  • Immigrants is 31% (the truth is 13%)

You may be more knowledgeable than the majority of people.  But, my guess is that at least some of your guesses will have been overstating the facts,  because if you read a newspaper, watch television news or get your news online, then you are going to be influenced by how much coverage there is of problems associated with all of the above.  

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (arguably, the most influential single media outlet for the “politically aware listener”) the key presenter John Humphreys recently commented on an introduction to a Melvyn Bragg slot about complexity, that the role of a journalist was “to simplify and exaggerate”. It was an off-the-cuff remark that made me sit up and shout back at the radio (yes, I do that on occasion) “At last, you admit it!”

the “News” you read isn’t about facts. It’s about what the media think you want to know, and they will simplify and exaggerate in their efforts to get you to listen to them. That’s media framing- and, be warned, it messes with your head. Do your own research!

The Blame Game

In class this week, I challenged my final year PR undergraduate students to a problem based learning exercise on alcohol abuse. Reading media cuttings about drunk college students, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence fuelled by alcohol, interspersed with adverts from supermarkets selling wine and beer at below cost price, the students were asked ‘who is to blame?’  Is it the act of drinking to excess? Or is it the actor, ie who is doing the drinking? Or is it the results, that is, the consequences of some of the drinkers’ actions that is the “real problem”?

In PR, it matters who is ‘to blame’…because based on your assessment of the problem, different solutions come to mind. If it is cheap alcohol, then raise the unit price to make access more difficult. If it is youth all of whom cannot be trusted to drink responsibly, then change the licensing laws and enforce the legal drinking age. If it is the results that come from the actions of a few miscreants, rather than the many, then enforce the law and ban those people from drinking (a bit like taking a drunk driver’s license away). We all know the consequences of too much drink, so surely it isn’t ignorance.

The exercise was enlightening, because it helped students appreciate that the PR professional’s job is all about defining the agenda, controlling the debate and managing the issue, so that their client (or their company, if in-house) can protect and promote their interests.  Language matters.

How the debate is defined in the media world influences the public policy agenda. So, every press release and media briefing needs to be seriously considered from that point of view. By your definition of the problem, you are proposing a solution. So, do it consciously, with forethought. Is that really what you think the solution of the problem is?

What was also interesting is helping students realise that the biggest cost to society  of alcohol abuse is not the drinking of young people, but rather the ballooning health costs of alcohol-related diseases, especially diabetes, which do not generally surface until people are in their fifties. So, maybe despite how the media loves to vilify “Freshers’ Week” drunkenness, the real problem is stopping the fifty year old women like me from reaching for that second (and third) glass of wine.

Corporate Communications vs PR

Ok, I am a snob….after thirty years of being a practitioner, I still cringe when people say “Oh, you are in PR”. Actually, I’m not. I’ve been a corporate communicator for all of my professional career. To me “PR” is all too often shorthand for “press relations” and that is (in my view) the bottom end of the food chain in my profession. Ask any poor intern about the “joys” of “selling in” a story to a reluctant journalist.  PR is all about “product push”, endless phone calls to publications in pursuit of those elusive column inches that your clients think are so important.  Ugh! I LOATHE PR, if that is what it means.  In fact, I’d rather hire journalists who can’t get jobs to write the press releases that will get the clients the coverage they want. Real communications professionals should be doing more meaningful work.

And I am not alone-  the sort of mental image that people outside the profession have of PR is not pretty. You know, “publicists”, “spin doctors”, “propagandists”. All the negatives wrapped up into one concept, dismissively called “PR”.  And that word is usually accompanied with an adjective “it’s just PR”- in other words, not real, smoke and mirrors, the “dark art” and other assorted negative phrases.

So, for years I have said that I do “corporate communications”-  the strategic stuff, the “big ticket” work, “crisis communications”, “mnagement communications”, “issues maangement”, “public affairs”, “reputation management”- in short, everything but PR.  There is a reason why the defnitions matter- because the language used has meanings for those who matter.

Corporate Communications is more professional than PR. If you are going to be working with top teams, the C Suite (Chief Executives, Chief Operating Officers, Chief Finance Offices, the CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc) then the word “PR” is certain to relegate you to the backroom. “Corporate Communications” is something that tends to command more respect; it’s the way into the boardroom.  For me, that’s where I want to be.

Murdoch and the law of unintended consequences

With all the furore going on about phone hacking,editorial  cover-ups, police corruption and the dangers of politicians being too close to the media, we are witnessing a firestorm of criticism about British newspapers.  As my students will attest, I rarely speak up for newspaper journalists, having had a somewhat fraught relationship with them for most of my professional career. But, is there a danger of going overboard? Every politician now claims to loathe the Murdochs and the bandwagon is really rolling on the subject of “media plurality”, as if new owners of newspapers or TV could be conjured out of thin air. Many politicians are arguing against foreign ownership of “our papers”, whilst others declare piously that media owners shouldn’t be able to control both newspaper and television channels. Virtually every media competitor of Murdoch (including the BBC) has rubbed their hands in glee at the withdrawal of the News Corporation bid for the rest of BSkyB.  Big brand advertisers are falling over themselves to disassociate themselves from News International papers, and investors in New York and elsewhere have taken fright and wiped some 15% of the market price off News Corp shares.

I am wondering if all the fuss is going to lead to some pretty dire consequences. The result may actually be the closure of not just the News of the World, but a whole lot of other newspapers which are no longer viable in print form unless they are subsidised by international media groups with significant revenues or foreign owners with deep pockets. Cross platform ownership is about the only thing that has kept Channel 5 on air. Murdoch papers are kept alive by the income he is willing to invest in them, to cover their losses, and that income derives from other media channels. The Independent owes its continued existence to a Russian, a former KGB operative. Just how he could be deemed “fit and proper” to own a newspaper should also be called into question if the Competition Commission starts to challenge the likes of James Murdoch or his father. 

While attention in the media is fixated on how the mighty are falling, one of the consequences may be an attitude that actually makes newspapers even less viable as a business than they were before.  Lest we forget, the phone hacking scandal was caused by the pressing need to sell papers; whatever was needed to get the circulation up and the revenues in was justified.  While individuals will be found guilty of crimes, the editorial pressure of a failing business model is the ultimate guilty party.

In a self-righteous attempt to “clean up the media”, politicians would be well advised to realise that if they take measures to extremes, they may just be writing the death warrant for an industry already struggling to keep afloat.  Wouldn’t we miss newspapers if they were no longer there?

Measurement- 2.0

The Social Media group at the CIPR have produced new Social Media Measurement Guidance, six months after the main exercise to give the Barcelona Principles shape. Was the extra time warranted? Was extra caution warranted before applying the “valid metrics matrix” to social media when other PR measurement was covered in October?

 Reading the document makes me wonder whether the wait was worth it, given that so much that they urge seems equally applicable to traditional PR, as well as that conducted in the social media environment.  The Guidance assumes that there is a difference, given that “social web participants produce, share, curate and publish as well as consume.”  Well, I would argue that good “old fashioned” PR creates engagement. Face-to-face and intermediated mechanisms have existed for decades; social media just makes it easier, quicker, cheaper. It’s a matter of degree, rather than uniqueness.

The sixth of the Barcelona Principles is that “Social media can and should be measured.” Well, duh, as my American friends would say.

I have been sceptical for at least a decade of PR that counts clicks, just as much as I deride AVEs and “opportunities to see”. It’s what people DO that counts, not what they read- on or off line. It is a case of the blindingly obvious that the most important purpose of PR is not awareness or perception, but rather action So, I concur with the new Guidance’s emphasis on the “metrics of engagement not just consumption, awareness or reach”- but that applies equally to PR using traditional media as well as social media.

I do think that the task group was a little simplistic in their criticism of the matrix when they worried that “too many of the example metrics in one cell were repeated in other cells”. That seems to my eye to be their poor understanding of what they should be measuring- and I quarrel with most of what they have populated the cells with. Why, for example, should they simply repeat across all of the matrix for PR Activity the number of outputs, as if implying that quantity was the important issue? I’ve always argued that it isn’t the number, it’s who and what is being said. More than a name check, this needs careful analysis of content and context, and that applies to social media as much as traditional PR.

I do applaud their desire to debunk the myth that “the more followers/friends the better.”  I have always argued that unless you are CocaCola or Macdonalds, PR is almost never a mass market numbers game. What matters is influencing the right stakeholder at the right time. That needs pinpoint targeting- and social media rarely delivers more than a very few stakeholder groups. “Fans and friends”, even if they are customers, are only one type of stakeholder group. As my students are wont to hear from me, customers are usually the least important stakeholder group. So, if you fill your PR reports to clients with the sort of charts like those above, whilst explaining that you are deploying a communication strategy that delivers “two way symmetric communication” just because it uses social media and gets some comments and feedback that way- well, this is just plain wrong. This conclusion may make me unpopular with the Facebook generation, but I argue that for most organisations the most important stakeholders are not online or engaging with social media.

So, I endorse the Working Party’s conclusion that “one metric never suffices. You will need a balanced portfolio of metrics.” Once again, duh…

When a spokesperson needs a spokesperson…

The resignation of Number 10’s Director of Communications has been long anticipated by the chatterati, but the manner of his departure is still interesting- in particular, his explanation of his reasons for resigning. When the PR person is in need of PR, the sell-by date is nigh, so he was right to go.

But, there are consequences of sacrificial lambs or people “falling on their swords”. When the reputation of the spin doctor is damaged, the inevitable result is that the client’s judgement is called into question, and the news coverage tonight focuses on just that- driven by Labour’s nudge, no dount, who want to do more than just see off Coulsen; Prime Minister Cameron himself becomes an easy target, too.

I can remember trying to explain to camera (and interview) shy CEOs that they were the people to take the limelight, not me. All too often, clients have the expectation that the “PR Person” is there to take the flack, handle the heat, dodge the bullets, etc. But, as most Number 10 spin doctors have found out, they have the disadvantage of being the lightening rod and surrogate target for the boss- which means the press will feel justified in having a go at you, no matter how good you are. The only one in my experience to emerge unscathed is my old friend, Simon Lewis, who (having experienced the pressure cooker of HM Queen’s publicity challenges) managed to get out of Brown’s number ten with his reputation intact- indeed, enhanced.

So, my advice to my PR students is “be careful out there”. When the spokesperson needs a spokesperson, then it’s time to let the client realise that they need to be in the firing line, too.

Browsing, for real

I did something this morning that I wish I had the time to do more often. Over a cup of coffee I read a newspaper from cover to cover. Well, almost- I did skip most of the sports pages, apart from the latest article on the Ashes Test match (hee, hee, to my Australian friends). It made me remember when browsing meant something different from what it usually means today- the browser window through which we interface to the web. It also made me realise that in this age of online news and RSS feeds, we assume that the technology will make sure that the news that we want to see reaches us. But that is part of the problem- by not browsing the physical paper to see what is happening out there in the world beyond our own interests, we lose the sense of context that is so important.

This matters even for the news we are certain that we want to read. How often have I told my students that WHERE an article appears in the paper is almost as important as what is said in the text? If it is an op-ed piece, it affects stakeholder perceptions more than if it is buried in a diary piece. “Above the fold” has meaning in hard copy that just does not translate in web terms.

And, are we limiting our interests by screening out the stuff that we assume we are not interested in reading? Today, for example, I read a fascinating article on the role that PR performs for the porn industry. But my google alerts and RSS feeds didn’t pick that one up. Nor did they tell me that that Lady Gaga’s new (long anticipated) single is likely to be debuting at this year’s Grammy award ceremony. Now, my husband would say that is definitely NOT something I should be aware of, but then we don’t always agree on my taste in music! Another article that warranted a closer read- as we approach the deadline for UK university applications, applications are up by 2% on last year- which makes the nearly 40% increase in applications for my degree programme rather satisfying. Context, context is king. Just once in a while it is more important than content alone!

So, for all those people out there who profess to be PR oriented, I would encourage you to do something “retro” today. Go buy a newspaper, a cup of coffee, and learn something about the world that doesn’t come through a browser window. If you do it, share with me the revelations that come as a result. Can we really call ourselves professional if we don’t read, watch and listen for the news in the “real” world rather than relying on the virtual, anytime, anywhere world of downloads and RSS feeds?