June 26, 2019
If you’ve ever played the game Two Truths and a Lie (fun, isn’t it?), you know how hard it can be to discern between what’s a surprising fact and what’s far from the truth. That’s because the two are often not that far apart.
For brands looking to influence the story around their product or service, the struggle is real. How can you share what’s accurate in a way that’s credible while steering clear of what’s off-message or, worse yet, not the reality of the situation? Over the past few months, our agency has encountered several clients with the same dilemma: a member of the media shared news about them but it was in the “wrong voice” (yes, writers often take creative license!) and, in some cases, inaccurate, despite being given all of the correct, timely information.
We felt their frustration. After all, it’s anti-climactic to see your name in the news only to realize the way you’re portrayed is not quite right. Plus, it may leave you feeling like you don’t even want to share it on your brand’s social media feed or celebrate what should be good news.
In the spirit of Two Truths and a Lie, and after sharing some background on some of the whys behind this growing challenge, this article will give you the scoop on top concerns, along with two things that are within your influence and one that’s outside of it, even with the most adept public relations support on deck.
Start with why
Not to be all doom and gloom, but the state of the media has changed dramatically over the past decade. In fact, according to Pew Research, newsroom employment dropped 23 percent in the U.S. between 2008 and 2017. That’s not all, in May, at an International News Media Association event, The New York Times Executive Editor, Dean Baquet predicted most American newspapers will die in the next five years, with the exception of ones purchased by billionaires. It’s a dramatic statement, but with fewer news outlets by the day and publications folding frequently, it’s worth taking note of.
Add to this the growing use of social media as a way to convey information and get “news” for free and the explosion of bloggers, citizen journalists, influencers and micro-influencers and top it off with a world that moves as fast as hitting “post” on a status update. It’s no wonder we’re in a conundrum.
The public wants news faster, it’s being written up by fewer professional journalists and in fewer news outlets than ever before and there’s a constant pressure to break news first. With those realities comes risks of news going completely unnoticed and unreported, press releases being regurgitated verbatim, errors and typos and stories churned out without thorough factchecking or interviews to add context and color.
Controlling what you can, accepting what you can’t
Now that we’ve talked about why, here’s what you need to know about what you can (and can’t) influence in today’s modern news environment. To help you along the way, I’m sharing two things you can proactively do – your truths – and one thing that’s a don’t – your lie.
What aspect of your brand the media focuses on – Yes, you can absolutely shape the direction of a story, to some degree, by issuing a press release that details the information you think is most important to know or to zero in on. You can also frame out the concepts you’d like to draw attention to by emailing a reporter or pitching them with some key messages that tie to your desired narrative. However, you cannot predict what the reporter is most interested in or what cuts are made for space, which might eliminate your favorite part of the news you’ve shared. If you share a list of properties in your portfolio, for instance, and the story only talks about those on the north end of town, but leaves out some of your favorites on the south side, that’s outside of your control. Likewise, if you share a range of menu items at your restaurant and the reporter is a vegetarian, your noteworthy steaks may not make it to print.
The media’s opinions of your product, service or organization – You can share data in the spirit of being helpful. You can offer your perspective through submitted quotes or an interview and typically, if you’re at that point, you have the chance to influence a write-up to some degree, but you cannot control a reporter’s actual feelings about something, nor their style of writing. If you have a product, expect that the review may be subjective and if you have a destination or service, that the reporter may not be as enthusiastic as you are about it. One preventative measure you can take is to study the reporter’s previous stories and see if they capture the tone you’re hoping to strike or if most of the content they produce is positive. While it’s still not a guarantee that they will deliver your desired outcome, it’s a wise first step.
What photos appear alongside a story – Every picture tells a story, and while you can send in a few, upon request, or submit one along with a press release, you cannot dictate which of them make the final cut. A reporter may dig something out of the newspaper’s archives, use a photo submitted by a photographer or use an image that is already on public record. Sending a high-resolution photo and including a well-written, clear and concise caption with full names of everyone pictured is a great way to increase your odds.
If all of the information is correct upon publishing – Oh, how all of us wish we could have the final say before something goes to press or is posted digitally! The good news is that you can check the information you send before shooting off an email as a first line of defense and offer to check any facts or review content, if the publication is open to that or has the time to take that next step (If so, you’ll need to respond immediately as time is of the essence!). What’s not possible is controlling who does the checking, what other sources they get information from and even if they’ll allow you to help. Sometimes a reporter won’t respond to your offer to help, but will instead take the information, add what they find elsewhere and simply run with it.
If you’ll get that correction you’ve asked for – Should there be a factual inaccuracy – I’m thinking of a client we worked with and how the name of the organization was spelled wrong in a story (ouch!) – you can politely request the change be made. If a story has already gone to print, but there’s a digital version, you can also request that the digital version be changed, that way the information is correct when it’s shared or read going forward. However, what you can’t guarantee is that the publication will agree the item you point out is a priority to issue a correction on, or even if it’s materially significant enough to do so.
If the story winds up running – You can respond to a query and put your best foot forward and you can also make yourself available for an interview and come prepared to answer every question as thoroughly as possible, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll be part of the final story. Ultimately, stories can get scrapped or sources can get cut by an editor or even the reporter if one person’s comments are too similar to another, or even if the remarks no longer fit in the direction the story is taking in its final version. Rather than fretting, consider the email exchange or time spent doing the interview as relationship-building. A person who does not get included in a story one time, but is gracious about it, could very well get a call in the future that leads to a just-as-good, if not better opportunity. Be of service and you’ll succeed!
One final tip, while there are things under a brand’s control, and several things that aren’t, earned media – meaning exposure that you do not pay for, but is based upon merit or how the news fits into the greater mission of the media – is extremely influential and often perceived as more authentic. That kind of coverage is not always served up to order, but alongside a brand message that can be controlled, such as ads a company takes out, content it creates for marketing, owned media that lives on its sites and social media on its own page, can be exactly what a brand needs to help a customer digest its message. Here’s to cooking up great things and to focusing on your brand’s truth!