(Sorry) We’re just not that into you today

As if the concurrent enquiries into the Iraq war and financial crisis weren’t enough to keep the world’s media busy last week, we also watched as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake.

This has been a massive humanitarian tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected by the disaster.

Events and news cycles such as this one usually come as a shock purely because they’re unexpected. However, that shouldn’t be taken to mean “uncommon”. The nature of news media is to find the newest, most exciting stories to tell, so there will always be a bias towards covering the unexpected. Particularly in the case of major disasters where every story is a very real human interest story.

From a purely academic perspective the past week also serves as an important reminder for spokespeople (and marketers) that regardless of how important you are, or how interesting you think your story is on a normal day, sometimes…stuff happens.

Across the world last week, dozens of spokespeople who got out of bed early to front up for interviews will have arrived at studios, or sat waiting sleepily by the phone waiting for it to ring, only to have been stood down by broadcasters.

Stories that were “scheduled to run” were been pulled to make room for more pressing news.

This is one of the quirks of the game of media relations. If you want to participate in making or contributing to the news then you have to be prepared for things to not go your way – every time you saddle up. That includes not actually getting the opportunity to get on the horse. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and that goes for the rest of your campaign as well. It’s literally nothing personal.

That said, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of a hijacked news cycle, some of which you may have heard from Catherine Cross in our media training. But be warned – most of them involve a bit of extra work:

  • Be available generally. The media doesn’t care about your day job, and from a journalist’s perspective if you’re not available then someone else probably will be. If you want that headline, you’ve got to make the time for it. If your job doesn’t allow you the time, maybe you need a different job. Or maybe someone else needs yours.
  • Take your medicine. If you’re an official spokesperson then sometimes you’re just going to have to be the face of a company that has to take some constructive criticism. Like being bumped from your interview, it’s nothing personal. It’s all part of managing your own relationships with the media.
  • Do more media. There’s no value in scarcity for the vast majority of spokespeople and playing hard to get is just annoying. Only the very top people in a company get to play the “I’m important” card, and it’s rarely appreciated by journalists who are covering your business. Far better to be the go-to person not just for your product, but your brand, and if you can swing it, your industry. That’s one of the things that leads to thought leadership, and it’s a powerful tool in strategic issues management (which we’ll deal with another time).
  • Don’t blame your communications team. It’s not their fault that earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks happen. Of course there’s also something to be said for campaign scheduling, i.e. know what’s going on before you try to pitch an interview in the first place.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket. A big scrapbook full of splashy media coverage makes everyone feel good, but realistically why do you want everything to appear at once anyway? You don’t have your life savings in one bank account (I hope), so take a balanced approach to your campaign planning as well. Think about how political campaigns, or grassroots movements work – they all start small and build to a crescendo. Ok, we’re not all launching iPhones, but for the right audience, tapping into the right media, the principle still applies.
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