ANALYSIS: Imminent war forces major shift in media's philosophy

From seeking war-related angles to diversions from gloom, Matthew Creamer finds the media's current wartime focus has prompted PR pros to alter their pitch tactics.

From seeking war-related angles to diversions from gloom, Matthew Creamer finds the media's current wartime focus has prompted PR pros to alter their pitch tactics.

Though she runs a one-woman PR operation out of her home in Cincinnati, Julie Phillippi likes to chase the national spotlight for her small but eclectic group of clients. Recently, however, that spotlight seems like it's running on AAA batteries. In no time, Phillippi says, a booker she knows at the Today show had shipped off to Iraq, a USA Today reporter who used to cover career issues turned his attention to the war, and two other reporters were donning gas masks at the training sessions for war correspondents. The unrelenting march toward war has altered Phillippi's small piece of the media world. It has changed the list of those she can pitch, and it has limited the approaches she brings to a story to precisely two: A client or product is either war-related, or it will provide a welcome respite from war coverage, the latter founded on Phillippi's premise that "You can't do doom-and-gloom 24-7." Or can you? This is the question echoing through PR firms of all shapes and sizes, prompting executives to ramp up planning for a wartime media landscape that will in all likelihood be very different from the current state of affairs, which is already pretty high-toned and dire. These agencies are all conducting their own reports, crafting strategies, and advising clients in ways that are at times strikingly different. Pitching stories unrelated to war No one set of answers emerges when it comes to how to handle clients that have nothing to do with the war. Issues arise as to how brands that appear adjacent to grisly war news will be affected, and how messages should be altered to jibe with wartime consumer sensibilities, not to mention the fundamental issue of how to squeeze past the war coverage. There isn't even a consensus on how to promote stories with war angles, since concerns about being viewed as opportunistic arise. Yet there are a few common conclusions, especially when it comes to anticipating how the media will approach stories unrelated to war. Forget cable TV news, especially in the conflict's opening days. Turn your attention to local outlets, trades, and other niche titles that will hold their course while the national media focuses on the big story. "This will be an all-hands-on-deck situation," says Barbara Kalunian, SVP of Ketchum's communications and media strategy group. "There was a time when a major event would come up and sections and beats would be fairly immune. Now that's not the case." The blanket coverage of the days following September 11 is the precedent from which strategists are drawing their war plans. Those days, Kalunian remembers, saw food and lifestyle writers pitching in on breaking news. She expects the same in a war with Iraq because many editorial staffs have been wracked by layoffs and stretched thin since September 2001. Changes in news-gathering methods will also add to the intensity of war coverage. Battle footage and stories will be even more attractive to producers and editors this time around because reporters will travel with the troops. So the grainy videotapes of yore, already captivating to viewers, could be replaced by something far more visceral. "The Gulf War isn't going to be repeated here because of the practice of embedding reporters," says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It'll be tough for journalists to turn down audio and video of the shrapnel flying." Indeed, much ink and tape had already been spent on coverage of the Pentagon's media boot camps and news organizations' plans for the embedded reporters. And anecdotal evidence suggests that the 24-hour news networks are already shaping their formats for an all-war, all-the-time philosophy. Kara Dullea, PR manager for the Greenville, SC-based Leslie Agency, hit the cable-news brick wall with recent efforts to publicize a luxury real-estate story that forced an immediate shift in focus. "We're now advising our clients to zoom in on print and niche publications," Dullea says. Avoiding a total strategy change Despite these developments, some PR pros warn not to leap into wholesale changes in strategy that could take clients out of the picture. "You shouldn't run away from the war," advises Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates. Paul now finds himself seeking patriotic and war angles for his clients. Even agencies that promote products that have no connection to the war aren't giving up, despite the fact that programs and segments devoted to health and beauty items are sure to be preempted in the event of a war. "The key is to become flexible," says Suzanne Haber, SVP of media at Marina Maher Communications. For instance, she isn't advising her clients to cancel events that could occur during a conflict. Instead, she tells them to capture the event on tape to get it on a satellite feed at a later date. "We have contingency plans and safeguards in place," she says. "We have to be a little more creative." Felling says that though ubiquitous war coverage may freeze out other hard news stories, there will likely be room for escapism. "Something whimsical, something that can lighten the mood, will find you a spot," he says. Haber agrees. "People want things to make them feel good," she says. But the ultra-serious tone that accompanies war is also causing communicators to examine campaigns to ensure that they're appropriate for a nation on edge. "We've conducted an audit of media activities planned for the rest of the year," says Ketchum's Kalunian. "We placed them under a new lens, looking for inflammatory language." One positive aspect of the long but bleak period of diplomacy is that it has allowed people like Kalunian to do all kinds of contingency planning, including looking at the possibilities of ad blackouts. She's also been able to feel out the media, to see how their coverage strategies are already taking shape. This all stands in stark contrast to the chaos that followed the September 11 terror attacks. She says, "At least now we have the opportunity to conduct the assessments, talk to clients to identify vulnerabilities, and identify the PR and marketing vehicles to use." ----- US News prepares for conflict US News & World Report last month announced plans to create a haven for advertisers who bristle at the idea of their products appearing next to grisly news about the war. If war breaks out, US News will in effect create a wall between coverage of the conflict and other sections, with those stories running at the front of the magazine. The rest of the issue will follow, free of war stories and prefaced by a table of contents that will appear well into the issue. The plans are designed to massage an ad climate that is just beginning to look up, but they will also have implications for PR practitioners seeking placements. Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon Communications, says a war would present PR opportunities - both legitimate and opportunistic - in many areas. He questions whether it is wise, or even possible, to isolate the biggest news of the day. "How or why do you take an event that could have an impact on every part of life and put it in a box and cordon it off?" he says. "Why attempt to compartmentalize something that is so pervasive?" He adds that past advertisers made war work for them by running patriotic ads. A magazine spokesman has defended the strategy as a result of a bleak economy and the psychological shadow still cast by September 11. "This is a first," says Richard Folkers, director of media relations for US News. "We're all in unplowed territory here. The last war was not in the aftermath of 9/11." Nor did it unfold, Folkers adds, in a time when the magazine industry was wracked by significant loss of ad pages, a reality the lion's share of publications now deal with. Newsweek, for instance, is allowing advertisers to position their ads away from the war news. However, Time, the largest newsweekly, plans to stay its course.

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