John Shewell: Caritas in Veritate

The media landscape may be on the cusp of change following the closure of Britain's biggest selling newspaper on Sunday 10 July.

John Shewell: media landscape on 'the cusp of change'
John Shewell: media landscape on 'the cusp of change'
Allegations that some former News of the World reporters illegally hacked phones and bribed police officers forced the owner, Rupert Murdoch, to axe the 168-year old newspaper.

Not all journalists act unlawfully or unethically and many are shocked by recent events, but perhaps the whole sorry affair is needed to put the spotlight on media standards.

Comms heads have a role in all of this, too. By allowing news organisations to get away with publishing inaccurate drivel without even the slightest whisper of disapproval is effectively allowing poor behaviour to go unchecked.

The key to proper media engagement should be based on a set of guiding principles that are agreed with the organisation's leadership.

At the heart of these principles should be fairness, objectivity and honesty - the same guiding principles found in the Editors Code of Practice which is what most news organisations have signed up to.

Therefore, comms heads should do four things:

1.    Agree a set of guiding principles with the senior leadership team in terms of how to engage the media - be clear where the lines in the sand are so that if they are crossed then the comms team has the mandate to hold the media to account, which is backed by the top table
2.    Always challenge the internal leadership to ensure that they are not doing stupid things. Be prepared to ‘tell truth unto power’
3.    Step up to the plate. You have a duty to represent the organisation, its people and the public at all times. This means fronting a difficult issue or holding a media organisation to account if they get it wrong or infer a position that it encourages people to form a misleading view of your organisation
4.    Don't be afraid to use social media. Traditional media is not the only source of information and influence so open it up to a wider network and get a debate going on the issue. The power of crowds will soon confirm whether the approach taken was the right one or not.

The truth is the role between comms teams and the media is based on a love-hate relationship in which the two sides tango in often passionate and fiery exchanges while at the same time loving every minute of it.

In our trade, this is just a ‘healthy relationship’, but I fear many comms heads have been cowed by the media because they're scared to put their heads above the parapet for fear it may get blown off.

Recent events may help reset media standards based on principles and values rather than the bottom line. As Clifford Longley said on BBC Radio Four's Thought for the Day earlier this week, the media should adopt the Latin phrase ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (love in the truth) as their operating principle.

In short, the media should give prominence to principles not profit. Comms teams would be wise to adopt this phrase, too.


John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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