Editorial: Rules of engagement

Editorial: Rules of engagement

Every now and then you write a column that you know is going to come back and bite you on the bum. Well, this one is it. I can’t help it. And, frankly, I don’t want to, for since what I’m about to say is dying to come out of my mouth, it may as well be ON the record. So here it is: Thank God for the PR people!

Yup, I know, it’s not often that a journalist wants to give flackland something to grin about. And it is not last week’s PR earnings survey that is making me soft-hearted either. No!

My motives are purely selfish and I write this because I am a journalist with issues. So many issues, in fact, that I feel compelled to scream from the top of a cliff and beg for PR business development managers to have some mercy on me, and go out and make over the prevailing media-relations mindset in the channel. And while you’re at it, can you please get media amateurs and little ‘we advertise with you, therefore we want this type of coverage or that type of coverage’ dictators off my email and phone lines!

I mean, can anyone tell me what has happened to the media-savvy IT industry? Just a couple of days ago, I got a press release from a channel company accompanied by a note to “report any results” back to the company. Results? What are we? An outsourced arm of the company’s marketing and PR team? More importantly, can anyone tell me what has happened to the journalist’s right to report and the reader’s right to learn the facts of the reported story?

At some stage in the last few years, there emerged a school of thought in IT marketing and communications which preaches that any PR activity or advertising dollars spent entitle the PR activity financier or the advertiser not only to coverage, but also to a certain type of coverage and a certain type of treatment. Usually, ‘a certain type of coverage’ means the surgical and sanitising approach to inconvenient facts as dictated by the company a journalist is reporting on.

Somebody, somewhere, somehow has figured that PR and advertising sort of equal shareholding, so, when you advertise or spend some money on PR, you buy a ‘share’ of news-space, as well as ‘the right’ to demand that the company you advertise or target your PR activities at ‘cooperates’ with you, delivers dividends, reports information the way YOU like it, not the way it is — or else! So, when money is spent on a story to be told — it had better be told — and told in the way the official mantra goes. Or, when the advertiser learns of a story they don’t like, they believe that they have the right to ‘pull it’.

Just like an advertisement they place with a media outlet.

Hmmmm … Had a look at the atlas and the calendar lately? Surely you spotted the fact that the year is 2003 and the 1940s Soviet Union has been put to rest! Here is some more (age-old) news!

News item #1 — everything you say to a journalist is on the record, unless otherwise stated and agreed.

News item #2 — once you let the cat out of the bag, it is in your best interest to deal with it. No amount of crying ‘foul play’ to the journalist who’s only reported what they learned from you and/or reminders of how good an advertiser you are with the journalist’s company will change the fact that the story is out and your communications procedures need a good looking into.

News item #3 — a journalist’s job is not to protect the interests of your company, whether or not you advertise with the company that the journalist works for. A journalist’s job is to report facts — including the facts that you would rather have go unreported.

News item #4 — it is not in your best interest to threaten a journalist with ‘not speaking to them until they get their story right’, firstly, because journalists are not your children and will not react by retreating to their room with tail between legs, but will do quite the opposite; and, secondly, because you will only deprive yourself of the opportunity to set the record straight.

News item #5 — you are not the centre of the universe, so get over it! If a story that was reported contains facts that came out prematurely, you are better off just letting it go, rather than assuming that the whole world is going to crumble around you as a result and then going to great lengths to deny it. Because, believe me, you will be forced to eat your own words a few weeks down the track.

Finally, haven’t you noticed that every publication has a little person called the ‘editor’ sitting up top? Well, it is this person — and not you — who decides what information goes into their publication, when this information is going to be published and in what form. The only customers an editor and a journalist have are readers and the news we choose to report is chosen and reported because it is of interest to those readers. Once the information reaches the journalist, it is no longer your property. It is public property. That is the nature of the media. A medium is ‘the means of public information’ because it makes information public. Sound logical? I think so.

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