MEDIA EVALUATION: The fight against media hysteria

The media may be giving more editorial space to big organisations, but that coverage is becoming more negative. Can PROs win over this cynical new generation of journalists, asks Mary Cowlett

The growth of traditional media and the explosion of internet usage has changed the media landscape dramatically over the past ten years.

However, it seems that the past decade has seen journalists become more hostile towards organisations. According to the latest benchmarking survey by media evaluation firm Metrica, negative coverage of organisations has doubled since 2001, from four to eight per cent.

Of course, PROs will argue the flipside to this: 92 per cent of coverage is positive, and Metrica's evaluation of 700 companies shows that, on average, each one is read about by 35 per cent of the UK adult population 11 times.

But the question remains as to whether blanket coverage is a good thing if the media are becoming more cynical towards organisations.

Predictably, given the global credit crunch and the pressure on interest rates, Metrica flags up the financial sector as experiencing the toughest time in 2007, with government, the public sector, telecoms/internet and transport not far behind.

This comes as no surprise to Virgin Media head of corporate and consu­mer PR, Michelle Gordon, who says that any increased negativity in her firm's sector has been driven by lack of clarity. ‘Operators need to use accessible language,' she says.

Other media evaluators see the situation as less clear cut. ‘It depends how pol­iticised an organisation is,' says James Davies, managing director of Impact Evaluation. ‘Government agencies, charities or pressure groups are more likely to receive polarised coverage.'

Likewise, Jeremy Thompson, managing director at Durrants, believes that negative coverage is often driven by events outside an organisation's control. As an example, he points to First Direct, which this April, in the face of unprecedented customer dem­and, decided to temporarily close its doors to new mortgage customers. ‘On the back of general unrest in the banking sector, First Dir­ect faced implications that it was in fin­ancial trouble when that wasn't the case,' he says.

In addition, according to TNS Media Intelligence, barring the odd spike in the second quarter of 2007 - when ret­ailers such as M&S were posting strong results - overall national media sentiment has plummeted since 2006. This means the number of articles containing explicit negative comment about companies operating in the UK now outweighs articles containing positive comment.

Damian Reece, the Telegraph's head of business disagrees, saying coverage might seem negative to an organisation, but important and useful to a reader. But, many share the view that the media's overall tone of reporting has shifted. In January, Tony Blair's former dir­ector of comms Alastair Campbell acc­used the media of sacrificing fairness and accuracy for speed and sensation.

In his Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication, he criticised newspapers in particular for getting ‘close to hysteria' in their coverage of the disappearance of Madeline McCann. He also condemned the media's ‘language of extremes' and avoidance of ‘shades of grey' in covering Gordon Brown's premiership.

Similarly, Lord Bell recently questioned the integrity of the press in a Media Standards Trust debate at Westminster University.

CIPR president Elisabeth Lewis-Jones agrees, citing the launch of Heathrow's Terminal 5, where coverage of heavyweight political concerns such as the elections in Zimbabwe were shuffled down the news agenda by tales of supermodels losing their baggage.

Titles do treat org­anisations differently. Metrica singles out The Sunday Times, Observer and the Daily Mail as publishing the most negative press coverage. It flags up reg­ional coverage as doing well in terms of favourability and message delivery, while naming online media as featuring the strongest message delivery of all.

This is a view endorsed by Yell's head of PR Susannah Finn: ‘Online PR has opened up a whole new world. Journalists simply have more physical space in which to discuss issues.' But others believe online journalists tend to be more questioning than traditional media.

The Telegraph's Reece adds, ‘An emphasis on "news you can use" helps give an edge when fighting for consumers' attention, but it also means journalists look at situations differently. If they want to campaign on behalf of readers they assess organisations with a more critical eye. It's not a bad thing.'

To find out how this shifting picture affects organisations looking to benchmark their communications, PRWeek asked eight industry experts how the media's editorial agenda has changed.

Miranda Kavanagh
Head of communications and engagement, the Healthcare Commission
‘The proliferation of media outlets and a 24-hour news service means there are more column inches and airtime to fill than ever bef­ore. It seems natural that negative coverage should increase with a growing sector competing for audiences.

‘It's unsurprising that public sector organisations generated a higher than average amount of unfavourable coverage if they have a duty to report problems as well as successes.

‘As an independent regulator the Healthcare Commission strives to rep­ort findings in a balanced way. The nature of our role is to report as we find. The commission maintains objectivity with its media relations strategy; we let both positive and negative findings speak for themselves.'

Andrew Ketteringham
Drector of external affairs, Alzheimer's Society
‘It doesn't feel more negative today, but it is shar­per. So, with every passing year, you just have to get smar­ter and smarter.

As the media looks harder for a different edge to the story you need to exercise greater control, so the timing of the issue of your news rel­ease, the embargo, content, selling and follow-up information for interested journalists becomes more critical.

‘But the golden rule remains the same: you're there to help. Whether your audience is journalists, MPs, ind­ustry watchers or opinion formers, you must be one of their primary sources of information.

So when you have something to say you command attention. As a director of public affairs in the City in the early 1990s it didn't take long to learn that by being a good source of information I was given better opportunities to speak about my company. Does that sound familiar?'

Glenn Manoff
Head of comms, O2 UK
‘Nobody seems to have the time for the human element any more. Communication technologies make it far easier to stay connected to the media without having to talk directly to each other. This is very efficient but means the amount of information we all cycle through in a day is just massive.

‘Versus ten years ago, I'd say I consume 50 times more media each day -increasing quantities in real time every waking hour - but know fewer and fewer of the people writing these things, who are increasingly based all over the world.

‘I take two conclusions from this. First, the power of human relationships still prevails so those who cut through all the noise and build the best relationships are still the best media relations people.

Second, the ability to control the story and hoard information is dead - really dead - so ‘spin doctor' is no longer a relevant term for what media relations folk do. The key skill you need now compared with ten years ago is to work with information and issues and build relationships in real time. It's the information age after all.'

Celia Hall
Senior vice-president, FDSanté
‘The pharmaceut­ical industry has long been the subject of negative rep­orting, particularly in the past ten years, some of it tenuous.

The prejudice is widespread. This has been fuelled by the wide use of powerful, effective drugs which, of course, have side effects, an increasin­gly risk-averse and litigious society and greater public knowledge of diseases, easily culled from the internet.'

‘Nearly three years ago the pharmaceutical industry made its Code of Practice for the way it markets its products even more stringent. The imp­ortance of transparency has never been more evident.

The big challenge facing healthcare communicators is to support good practice and good reputation in the industry, now and in the future, and to see that a line is drawn under transgressions of the past.'

Alicia Wylie
Head of communications, Jupiter Asset Management
‘The editorial age-nda of the UK media, particularly with regard to the financial sector, has not really changed much over the past ten years. Journalists have always sought negative stories. But the actual style of reporting has definitely become more sensationalist.

‘Also, an increasing number of journalists are now having to write stories for both print and the web, in addition to producing podcasts and taking part in internet TV shows - they are more ‘churnalists' rather than journalists.

This reduces their research time, which can be both positive and negative for PROs. Journalists can be more reliant on PROs for stories but they are often under pressure to take chances on the facts of a story. This is particularly the case on the web.

‘It means that PROs have to be inc­reasingly imaginative with building
relationships with journalists - long lunches are definitely out. It is more about coffee meetings if you are lucky, and making sure you always return calls and email enquiries.'

Helen McCallum
Director of policy and communications, Which?
‘With infinite online space and broadcast time to fill, journalism is a different game now. With scoops much harder to come by, and the norm for reporters to all be working from the same facts and figures on the wires, their job now is not just to get a story out there, but to compete with their riv­als to put the most dramatic spin on it.

‘Inevitably, that means proportion gets lost - every story is ramped up to its shocking worst. The media deal and negotiate in fear so, from the PRO's point of view, it's more of a challenge to win attention for a serious story and it's especially difficult to get a good news story out there.
‘On the plus side, it gives us an interesting challenge and makes us think very carefully about the stories we put out. But you know that, when you score a ‘win' and your story gets a front page or a wide pick-up, you've done a good job. And there is, of course, a positive side to the media's pack mentality - it's great when it's your story.'

Loretta Tobin
Managing director, Trimedia
‘The media agenda has changed but largely because of the increased competition and immediacy of news. Websites, podcasts, mobile phones and e-editions mean people expect to see news as it breaks, often directly from citizen journalists.

‘But this has not been all bad news for good PR practitioners. Media fragmentation has had an impact on our role as a PR consultancy in that we have to spend more time planning media strategies to leverage opportunities.

We have to think in multiple formats to all­eviate some of the pressure that journalists are under, lining up photography, video and audio clips, interviews and briefings so we can be faster and more responsive when a story breaks.'

Peter Sherrard
Director of communications, Football Association of Ireland
‘The rise of 24-hour news channels and the internet as competitors for our attention in today's accelerated news environment has forced newspapers to evolve and compete or die.

Peter SherrardMost newspapers have now entered the breaking news fray, developing online editions, each one more keen than the next to deliver the big scoop.

‘In this environment, companies can no longer wait until close of play to
respond to news stories.

Consumer hearts and minds are won and lost in an instant. Print media simply reflects the final outcome of those battles, long after the dust has settled. In today's world, the slow lose and the fast win.'

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