Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Doing business transparently

How business can be media smart

From The Statesman
ND Batra

I am invariably asked how a company should deal with rabid journalists for whom “If it bleeds, it leads” makes a good story.

The news media have begun to play a very significant role in the conduct of both national and international business, as you see in the current global economic crisis that originated primarily in the United States bad lending practices but now has affected rest of the world economies. Television news in convergence with the Internet makes events live and spontaneous beyond the traditional editorial controls. Bloggers, online whistle-blowers and civic groups present alternative views of what companies are doing. Rumours spread fast on the Internet. The rumour about the health of Steve Job, Apple’s CEO, who had cancer surgery, for example, might have contributed to the recent sudden decline in the company’s stock.

Today business cannot be conducted beyond the public view. The reason for this increased interest in how companies do their business is not difficult to appreciate. The impact on people’s lives even if they are not directly invested in a company is tremendous. The very presence of Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Wal-Mart in a town raises apprehensions and expectations, which calls forth close scrutiny by the news media.

It is true that the news media is itself a global business and is subject to rules and regulations like any other business; nonetheless, being regarded as the fourth estate the news media has a privileged position. For example, the news media has the unique privilege of issuing corrective statements as the stories develop. While the reader or viewer might think this is the news, journalists regard news as events in progress, which they must report.

In the United States, it is extremely difficult to win libel damages against the news media because of the legal provision that plaintiff must prove “reckless disregard for truth.” Proving media negligence only is not enough to win libel damages. The near immunity from libel gives the news media large freedom and encourages investigative reporting and keeps the society healthy.

Because of the inescapable fact that our economic well being, pensions, retirement savings, environment and quality of life have become dependent on the marketplace, no business can escape media attention. Bigger companies invite healthy suspicion about their activities by the news media. Add to it millions of blogs that feed upon each other. Keeping silence is not possible in an open society, well, not for long.

So how should global companies deal with the news media? A company doing business globally has to become media savvy and must understand how news organisations work and how they produce stories. Corporate communicators have to understand the news media’s sources of information and their reporting methods and how to influence them by providing them correct information. Companies have been using adverting as a major method of influencing the public, as oil companies, BP and Exxon-Mobil, for example, have been doing to divert attention from the charge of extortion at the pump. Advertising if done properly is still a powerful mode of direct communication with the public at large. But advertisement cannot beat headline news, breaking stories, or special reports with which the news media try to draw the public attention distracted by too much noise. It is a big challenge to be heard when electronic media has limited attention span.

Corporate communicators should keep in mind that a reporter cannot turn a damaging story into a good one, especially in the time of crisis. News is a competitive business and no one can afford to keep silent over a story that impacts the public and also draws big audience. In good times, a company that has excellent working relations with the news media can strengthen its positions by presenting positive stories and thus enhance its reservoir of public good will. Consequently, when a crisis hits the company, it would be able to draw upon the public sympathy. Building intangible social capital is as important as building tangible market capital.

The traditional method of issuing press and video releases is still relevant especially in the local news media outlet, where the paucity of manpower resources might prompt a local television station or a newspaper to repackage a company’s story as a news item. This is a common practice in the United States. But at the same time we should keep in mind that national news media organizations are inundated with e-mail news tips, and video and press releases, therefore, they hardly pay attention to junk mail. It is important to target the right people in the news media. Steps for dealing with the news media effectively require research.

Smart corporate communicators take several steps to make their stories relevant; for example, they determine whether they have a worthwhile story and whether it needs to be told to the news media and why.

They know the audience for the story, which news media would be the best to reach and the reporters who normally cover such stories. Through their networks they know which reporter would be most sympathetic to their story and whether the reporter is accessible.

When the news media ask for information, reactions and comments, the company should offer full cooperation; and the spokesperson should be ready with facts and figures or promise to provide the data promptly to meet the reporter’s deadline. Whatever information is provided, it should be done thoughtfully and judiciously.

It is difficult to undo or delete the information once it is out, even though the news media promptly issue corrections. Providing reliable and prompt information is one of the best ways to build bridges with the news media; so when the need arises, the company could count upon the media good will. It pays to be on the right side of the news media.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

No comments:

Post a Comment