MEDIA ANALYSIS: Standing up to a press campaign

Newspaper campaigns can be lobbying juggernauts. Robert Gray looks at how PROs can manage their momentum so that clients benefit rather than suffer.

McLeod: Weber Shandwick chairman UK Public Affairs
McLeod: Weber Shandwick chairman UK Public Affairs

The editorial leanings of our national newspapers is a topic of fundamental interest to anyone with a media relations brief. Insight into the stance a ­paper is likely to take when tackling a story is often vital to securing desired coverage or minimising reputational damage.

Comment and opinion pages aside, seldom is such editorialising more ­evident than when a newspaper transforms its coverage of a particular issue into a formalised campaign.

The Daily Mail has launched a series of campaigns in recent months, ranging from dustbin collection frequency to food additives. Sister title the Evening Standard has a long-running ‘Save Our Small Shops’ campaign and The Independent launched an ongoing ‘Campaign Against Waste’ in January.

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph has leant its weight to the ‘Hold on to Childhood’ initiative, as well as calling for a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, having so far gleaned more than 90,000 signatures for its petition. There are plenty of other recent examples of papers getting bees in their bonnets about specific issues.

Such campaigns can be highly influential. Last week, a few days after the Daily Mail ­began its additives drive, Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Mars promised to remove artificial ­additives from their sweets. The paper inevitably seized on this as a ‘victory’ in its efforts to ban ‘seven suspect ­E-number additives’.

How can PROs respond when charged with either defending the target of newspaper ire, or with exploiting a rolling bandwagon for their own positive publicity?

Campaigns do not get the green light without an editor’s approval and tend to be monitored closely by senior executives because they reflect on the ­media brand’s image. But at a day-to-day level, they are passed down to news desks or expert correspondents to implement.

‘I was given the ball and asked to run with it,’ says The Independent’s consumer affairs correspondent Martin Hickman, who heads the paper’s waste campaign.

The campaign started off purposefully, with a series of front-page stories containing prominent images of excess packaging in supermarkets. ‘Hostility towards journalists running campaigns is not a good idea because, even though some PROs felt their companies had been unfairly targeted, this wasn’t an attempt to poke retailers in the eye,’ says Hickman. ‘Tesco and Sainsbury’s spoke to us frankly about the level of disapproval among their customers ­regarding packaging. We do want to highlight the good work individual ­retailers are doing as well.’

At trade body Food and Drink ­Federation (FDF), the strategy for dealing with the additives crusade has been to correct any factual inaccuracies in coverage and to keep the journalists handling the campaign abreast of relevant developments.

The Daily Mail campaign appears to be pushing at an open door,’ says FDF director of communications ­Julian Hunt. ‘One of the biggest trends in the market is for food and drink manufacturers and retailers to reduce the use of additives in their products, as well as replacing additives used with non-artificial alternatives.

‘We will continue to emphasise that industry continues to respond to ­consumer demands in this way, as well as stressing that all these colourings are legal and are judged to be safe by the European Food Safety Authority.’

Correcting factual errors was a cornerstone of the Local Government Association’s response to the Daily Mail’s ‘Great Bin Revolt’ drive – in particular, trying to persuade the media to use the more accurate term ‘alternate weekly collection’ rather than the somewhat misleading ‘fortnightly’ collection.

‘Perhaps surprisingly, given that it seems to loathe local government, we have a good relationship with the Daily Mail,’ says LGA head of news Richard Stokoe. ‘They gave us 24 hours notice, saying “Get your ducks in a row, we are coming to get you”.’

Stokoe went into crisis mode. For the next 12 days, five of the LGA’s ­six-strong media team dealt exclusively with the campaign. While Stokoe ­focused on comms strategy, two of the team handled press calls, while another two pitched more positive stories to other media, including the BBC. By moving the focus of the story to packaging and potential landfill taxes, the aim was to isolate the Daily Mail and enable the LGA to set the agenda.

In April 2006, the Travel section of The Sunday Times began a ‘Clean Up Car Rental’ campaign to root out sharp practices in the auto-hire sector. Wendy Harrison, managing director of Harrison Sandler, engaged directly with the editorial team on behalf of car rental companies National and Alamo.

‘We were very proactive with the guys running it,’ says Harrison. ‘We’d say, “If there’s a problem, give us the details, including the rental number and we’ll investigate it.” They could see we weren’t going to block them on any issues, so they felt they could talk to us.’

Newspaper campaigns can be extremely tricky to handle. Editors don’t initiate campaigns unless they are confident of winning, or at least ­securing a positive outcome, for fear of humiliation in the eyes of their readers. As a result, once such juggernauts get rolling they are very difficult to stop.

For those PROs in the firing line, the best approach is to keep communications as open and honest as possible. Glaring errors should be corrected and, if a paper is unwilling to report your side of the story, try to redress the balance by approaching other outlets.

Newspapers will always indulge in campaigns, and journalists have long relished pursuing a subject with zeal. After all, one of the most famous media logos, the Red Crusader of the Daily Express, made its masthead debut way back in 1933.

A public affairs approach

In February, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) came under fire from a Daily Mail campaign against its decision not to prescribe Alzheimer’s drugs for certain cases. The newspaper set up a reader fund to help patients pay for High Court action.

Weber Shandwick, representing NICE, knew the Mail would not change its position, so focused instead on engaging directly with opinion formers.

‘A press campaign raging against an organisation often needs to be mitigated by a focused public affairs campaign so that the opinion formers see the real issues,’ says Weber Shandwick chairman UK Public Affairs Jon McLeod (pictured, top).

Last month, the judge ruled in favour of NICE on five of the six judgements brought to court.

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