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!

Don’t shoot the messenger!

If it’s in the Middle East, we get media coverage that trumpets the triumph of social media in the hands of young people, creating an Arab Spring that topples dictators and kick-starts a revolution.  “Demonstrators” in the streets are defined as a good thing, and the social media that helped fuel the fires was applauded. Now fast forward to August, and suddenly in London, youths are using social media to gather and demonstrate against police action in the death of a young black man in north London. But the participants get called “rioters”.  By the end of that same weekend, all over London and in several other metropolitan areas in England, social media is being used by “criminal gangs” hell bent on a looting rampage.

UK politicians, the judicial system and mainstream media climb onto their high horses and start a campaign against “feral youth”, “criminal under-classes” and “gangs of agitators”. Is anyone but me noticing just how similar all this moral outrage is to the response of the dictatorships in the Middle East to their demonstrators? Some of the rhetoric being levelled at youth in England could be interchanged with the language being used by the Syrian regime.

While there is a serious debate to be had about the causes of the demonstrations, riots and looting, and whether there are any similarities in motivations between the Arab Spring demonstrators and the London rioters, what I also find interesting is how the establishment’s views of social media change so quickly.  Social media users in the Arab world are called “brave”, “spirited”, “irrepressible”, and the regimes that tried to shut down the internet, censor facebook, and curtail the mobile phone texting systems are described as reactionary dictatorships.  Yet, within a matter of months, the UK government is talking in the same language about shutting down Blackberry messenger (the communication channel of choice in London’s riots) whenever they deem it “in the public interest” to do so.

A gun is a weapon, whether it is used to keep the peace, or to murder someone. So is social media. To blame the channel for the content of the message, and its affect on the local community, is to miss the whole point. Social media will be used by groups to achieve all sorts of things- from bullying classmates, to sharing photos with loved ones, to organising a picnic or a looting expedition. Get over it, and try to solve the problems that are underlying the demonstrations and riots.

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?

Trust, Transparency and …power!

 There are a number of very interesting discussions going on at the moment in my favourite blog, about trust , about transparency and about CSR. 

I have already nailed my colours to the mast and said that I think all communication is inherently asymmetric, because information is never shared equally between two parties, nor is interest in the discussion. A company has a lot of reasons to want to communicate some (but not all!) of the information it has, but stakeholders have a lot of voices competing for their attention, and are less likely to want to listen.  In that environment, how do you cut through the noise and give stakeholders want they want and need?

Craig Pearce makes a case for organisations being up front with the negatives, because honesty can win trust, and create a dialogue, especially if it is clear that the news will get out anyway (accelerated or not by social media).  I think a lot depends on which stakeholders you are talking about. Coming from a financial services background, I have a predilection for investor relations- and they are the ones who can kill a company. So, I am not surprised that companies have statutory obligations to release price sensitive information in a controlled manner.  Disclosure here is strictly legally controlled and required.

I am continually surprised, however, by my students’ surprise that CSR issues are not that important to customers or consumers. Every year I watch their research efforts come up with the same results- that while “nice to have”, ethical sourcing and other CSR attributes will not often win against price considerations for the majority of “the public”.

Where CSR actually bites hardest is …amongst the investors. There is an entire discipline devoted to measuring, hedging and managing corporate risk. I know, I used to work for an investment bank. And CSR risk increasingly features in that calculation of corporate risk. Don’t believe me? Check out FTSE4Good. This is above and beyond the “ethical investment” niche market.  Corporate management is taking more care these days to factor in CSR KPIs into their risk calculations- less because of fear of damaging their reputation amongst customers and more in fear of regulatory backlash.

If communication is about change (either promoting it or protecting against it, as Craig argues), then the most powerful change agents out there are the regulators, who, with one change of the law or statute, can change the rules of engagement. Because I have been a lobbyist, I never estimate the power of the politician to create havoc- intended or not- through well meaning but daft legislation.

So, I will add to my political incorrectness by arguing that not only is all communication asymmetric, but I also believe that all stakeholders are not equal, nor should they be treated as such. When resources are stretched, budgets under threat and the pressure is on, PR and communications functions need to prioritise their stakeholder communication. And it all comes down to focusing on those with the most power.

Will you sleep walk through the revolution?

I just took a look at Facebook and was disappointed to see how many of my “friends” have been commenting on everything BUT what is going on in the Middle East. OK, so I know I care about this stuff; you can’t have three university degrees in international relations and NOT notice things like revolutions.  But, I am surprised at how few people in my network are taking the time to comment. At the very least, the issue of how Facebook and twitter are used in organising and reporting might have attracted some interest.  But, no- my wall is full of the usual bits and pieces of people going out, partying, tagging photos of each other, etc.  You wouldn’t know that the most extraordinary changes of the past thirty years are underway.

 One of the key ingredients of a “PR person” (in my humble opinion) is that they should be plugged into the world, caring about what is happening, seeing the big picture and being able to understand what trends mean. And what is happening now is …history being made. In the same way as it was when the Berlin Wall was falling, Nelson Mandela was walking free, the twin towers were collapsing on 9/11. Wake up! Stuff is happening that will change your lives and the world around you!

 I often talk about “super hero PR”- when communication makes a BIG change. What is going on in the Middle East just now is a case of ordinary people creating BIG change through communication. If you thought the political machine in the UK was hard to change, consider how difficult it is in dictatorships where dissident voices are silenced by secret police, torture and tanks.  Yet, communication has overturned the status-quo in not one, not two, but now three- and more are on the way. Wow- that is EXCITING!

 I realised the links between the news and life at an early stage- watching TV when I was 13 years old when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, when Yasser Arafat addressed the UN, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, when African national liberation wars competed with black power, feminism and Viet Nam for the headlines.  Maybe that makes me different?

 I can’t help it- consider this an official rant: if you are serious about communication, then get serious about how it is being used to change the world. Pay attention and think about what it means…..  I think that what is happening is SEISMIC- and will end up changing the world far more than 9/11 did. I also think it will not end up anywhere near where the American and Western pundits are talking about. We (in the West) see the Arab world through a prism of our own prejudices and cultural/political imperialism. All this stuff in the papers about “democratic change” simply does not get it. Disagree? Tell me why….

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.

Media Stings against MPs- fair, or unfair?

The media are having fun poking at LibDem ministers’ “indiscretions”- but I wonder how fair it is for the journalists to lie, to disguise themselves as constituents, have conversations full of “leading questions”, and then to print only what has been said by the other side of the conversation. We have no idea what the journalists said to the MPs to provoke these comments. Is it fair to lie and then publish what the MPs believed were private conversations with constituents and LibDem supporters?

It isn’t as if it was one “over eager” journalist, either. This was a coordinated exercise involving three or more journalists, obviously under editorial control of the Daily Telegraph. So, I question the journalists’ ethics, and that of the newspaper in commissioning it.

Are we surprised that the first “revelation” is yet another media story? This time it is the UK “quality press” running scared from Murdoch and the BSkyB bid. Amidst all the coverage, no one seems to be asking the obvious question- what are the media’s motives at engineering this little fiasco?

Will every MP (especially those with ministerial duties) now have to re-think what they say to their constituents and their party supporters? Is it right in today’s world of “transparency” that no conversation can ever be thought of as “private”? How would the constituent with a genuine grievance or problem feel if the MP published their conversation? It seems that the media feel able to engage in any kiind of scam, without regard to the longer term effects it might have on how MPs and their constituents communicate. This is a story that it really worth exploring, rather than the idea that ministers don’t always agree with coalition policy, or that a minister has a view about an issue (well, duh- that’s hardly news!)