Breaking the (News) Cycle

newsIn 2013, the nation sat on the edge of their seats as an image of a man with a backpack was blasted across nearly every television news station in the country. The image went viral on social media and via major media outlets, who pegged this man as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing before issuing a retraction.

That wasn’t the only mistake involving a high-stakes story: media outlets have found themselves at the center of controversy after incorrect reports involving the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in 2011, the Supreme Court health care ruling in 2012, and even the recent arrest of real-estate heir Robert Durst, who was mistakenly identified as former Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. As long as there has been news to report, there have been mistakes.

With the media market becoming increasingly competitive, is the pressure to be the first to break a story leading to impulsive reporting – and can we really blame them for trying?

If You’re Not First, Are You Last?
From the score of the game to the weather report to the latest updates on a big story, people rely on the media to provide them with news as it happens. With each network constantly watching one another, the pressure is on for news organizations to be the first to break a story, making it increasingly difficult for news outlets to determine how long they should wait before releasing information.

According to one producer at a local major network affiliate, the pressure to be first may be a bit shortsighted. “Think about the high-profile local and national stories that have broken in the past few years, from the DNC coming to Philadelphia to the Boston Marathon bombings to 5, 10, 20 years back. People most likely won’t remember which news outlets broke the story, but they will remember which ones got it wrong,” he says, adding that while there is definitely pressure to break the story, the real pressure is to make sure you have credible sources to reinforce your facts.

A Catch-22 in a Changing Media Landscape
The public used to get their news by picking up the morning paper or tuning into the nightly news. Now, we’re surrounded by breaking stories, everywhere we turn. Print publications have gone digital, broadcast outlets are increasing the frequency of their newscasts, and social media has exploded with journalists of every medium turning to Twitter to report from the field.

According to the producer interviewed for this post, it’s much more difficult to latch onto an exclusive story today than it was in years past, and that’s where the pressure comes in – if you’re not reporting the news the fastest, you’re not perceived as a leader. But, if you hastily report something erroneously, it chips away at the credibility of your news organization.

Crowdsourced Investigations
For every well-researched piece, there will undoubtedly be a version from Joe Smith who turned to Twitter to report his firsthand account. A few retweets later, and the facts have become clouded and the rumor mill has officially begun.

In fact, the opening paragraph of this blog post refers to an image discovered by Reddit users that went viral.

With social media fueling crowdsourced investigations, it can be difficult to discern the facts from what’s trending. According to the network TV producer, “Things happen first on Twitter – before a story is reported on TV, online or anywhere else, someone has tweeted about it,” he says. “That’s both good and bad.” While he notes the importance of sharing breaking news as it happens, he stresses that news organizations have a responsibility to vet their sources before reporting updates.

“The same policies that we abide by in the newsroom have to apply on social media. As journalists, we must adhere to rules and policies so the information you’re putting out there is accurate,” he says.

For example, imagine the same Twitter-happy Joe Smith posts a fictional update about a breaking news story. In researching the story and potential sources, a reporter from an accredited print, broadcast or online news organization hits retweet using his or her professional account. Suddenly, Joe Smith’s post may be considered credible by the Twitterverse – even though the reporter did not post it directly, it’s still loosely attributed to the reporter and his or her organization.

The Takeaway
Errors are possible in any line of work. With each mistake comes an opportunity to remind ourselves of best practices so that we and our friends reporting from the front lines of the media can continue working together to provide the public with timely, accurate and pertinent information. Here are some reminders for PR professionals:

  • Think before you jump on the hashtag bandwagon. Just because a trending hashtag seems like the perfect fit to promote your brand, proceed with caution. Do some research first, or you may end up digging yourself into a social media hole that’s difficult to escape.
  • Consider the source. Just like our journalism-minded colleagues, PR pros must take into account the credibility of a source before pitching it. Rely on reputable websites, accredited organizations and subject matter experts to build your case as to why your story is newsworthy.
  • Be mindful of your own professional responsibilities. You owe it to yourself and the journalists with whom you work to provide accurate information in a timely manner. Don’t rush to give a reporter a quote or to confirm or deny something in a crisis situation. In the breaking news arena, honesty really is the best policy. Get the facts as quickly as you can, confirm those facts, and then comment.
  • Proof your work. With shrinking newsrooms, print and digital outlets often rely on news releases to bolster their editorial content. Make overworked editors’ jobs easier by proofing your release, checking your facts and including the most up-to-date and accurate information possible before hitting ‘send.’
  • Own up to your mistakes. Regardless of how hard we try – how many sources we use, how many times a journalist fact-checks a story, how many steps we take to ensure the information we’re putting out there is accurate – mistakes are bound to happen. The real takeaway is that we must be held accountable for our actions, even if that means falling on our proverbial swords. The main goal is to communicate with the public and provide them with the best information we have available, so when our efforts fall short, we should acknowledge our missteps and commit to doing it better next time.

Have you committed any media blunders? What have you learned from your experiences?

Jen Micklow is a senior account executive at Thomas/Boyd Communications, a leading woman-owned public relations firm specializing in strategic communications for clients of all sizes in a variety of industries. When she’s not communicating clients’ key messages to tailored audiences, securing media placements or writing carefully crafted content, Jen can be found hunting down a big sale or cozying up with a good book. Connect with Jen on LinkedIn, like Thomas/Boyd on Facebook or follow the company on Twitter @thomasboydpr.

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Brian Williams and NBC News: What Does it Mean for PR Professionals?

By now, the Brian Williams/NBC News mess has been dissected by everyone who follows journalism, broadcasting or media celebrities. But I’ve yet to see anyone talk about what it means for PR professionals and the practice.

Yes, what Mr. Williams did was wrong. As I teach my PR students, the first rule in media relations is never lie to a reporter. And the first rule for the media should be never lie in their relations with us.

Call it a lie, call it an exaggeration, stretching the truth, or “misremembering” as Mr. Williams did, the fact is he told the same story of his heroism and derring-do while covering stories in Iraq in 2003 that just didn’t match the facts. He was out-ed for it and is now on a six-month suspension. Whether he’ll ever report for NBC News again is still an open question. I imagine NBC management (whose parent company, by the way, is Philadelphia’s own Comcast) is still struggling with what to do long-term. At the very least, it certainly didn’t help his credibility. According to a recent poll conducted by The Marketing Arm, his ranking dropped from 23rd most trustworthy person in the country, to 835, on par with the star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.”

The spotlight on him didn’t help his industry, either. A Gallup poll shows the public’s trust in the news media in steady decline. According to Gallup, from 1999 – 2014, the public’s trust in the mass media to report news fully, accurately and fairly dropped from 55 percent to 40 percent. And in 2014, only 18 percent (the lowest since 1993) of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in television news, putting it next-to-last on a list of 16 institutions tested. Only Congress ranked lower (make of that what you will).

While newspaper and magazine readership, as well as TV news viewership has been going down due to a variety of factors, the fact remains a lot of Americans still depend on the mass media to get their news. Indeed, as it’s the only industry mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers certainly recognized its importance. But when you can’t trust it, what’s a populace to do? Rely on what’s posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? Heck, Stephen Colbert’s gone and even Jon Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, so that’s out.

So what can we do about it? Well, as citizens we can be more vocal in our demand the news media get it right first, then tell us about it.

And as PR professionals, we can help them do that.  If we want to help them build, maintain, or in some cases, re-build their credibility, it’s incumbent on us to be as accurate as humanely possible when we give them information so they get it right.  This may seem obvious to many, but as the pressure to get the client or organization’s story out rightnow in the fast-paced all-information, all-the-time landscape we operate in, corners still get cut.  Sadly, “spin” is still practiced in our profession.

And what’s the benefit to us?  By making sure the information is right before we hand it off to a reporter, we build our own credibility.  We become the trusted source, the reliable supplier of information, increasing the value of “earned media” vs. unearned (e.g., paid).  And we become more valued – and valuable – to those we represent.

As PR people, can we prevent people – even reporters – from making stuff up? No. But it’s our obligation and our duty to help our media brethren to do their job the right way. We all benefit.

Gregg Feistman is an associate professor of public relations in the Department of Strategic Communication at Temple University.  He has led the public relations sequence for the department since 2002.  He is the faculty advisor for both the PRSSA chapter (founded in 1969) at Temple and the student-run firm PRowl Public Relations.  He has a BA in Communications from Rowan University, received their Outstanding Alumni Award in 1993, and an MA in Communication from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY.  He received the Public Relations Society of America’s prestigious Anthony Fulginiti Award for Commitment to Education in 2010, The Department of Strategic Communication’s Outstanding Service Award in 2011, The School of Media and Communication’s Faculty Service Award in 2012, and the 2014 Temple University Outstanding Faculty Service Award. Contact Gregg via email at greggf@temple,edu.