Villing & Company

Breaking News: Fast vs. Factual

What a difference a day makes – or maybe that should be just a few hours. One day a national broadcast organization appears to have lost its credibility because of comments made in a secret videotape of a top administrator. The next day that same secret videotape has lost credibility because of its fine-tuned editing. The recent turn of events in the life of National Public Radio (NPR) is a great example of why immediate news reporting is not necessarily good news reporting. Or, why instant news and comments can be a PR practitioner’s dream or worst nightmare.

This past January when Arizona Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords was shot in Tuscon, initial news bulletins announced that she had died. Fortunately, that did not prove to be true. In another example, a colleague of mine set the record straight when a tweeter was irate after reading remarks supposedly made by a national personality. In a follow up post to the tweet, he pointed out that the article was a satire.

In today’s world of instant everything and the newest form of marketing (and news gathering and reporting) – social media – there is rarely time for putting things in the proper context. And certainly there is no time for true research or fact checking. And Googling doesn’t count. In “the good old days” of news reporting, a journalist would have done his or her homework, asked the proper questions, looked into the background of all parties, and had an editor sign off before a news story was finalized. In fact, top management of the organization reporting the news and of the organization being vilified would have demanded this kind of due diligence before a story was published or a high-level staff member was fired.

But technology has changed the way we all do business. With smart phones as common as credit cards in our pocket, major events like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and, ahem, events like Charlie Sheen’s rampage, hit the message channels with a push of a couple of keys, or in Sheen’s case, a couple of tweets. Once those keys are pushed, there’s no turning back. That information becomes reality – even if it’s not. And then the fun begins – especially for public relations professionals.

The old adage "perception is reality" is, unfortunately, increasingly true. And, just like in a court of law, one is guilty until proven innocent. (Oh, wait, that’s the other way around, isn’t it?) It’s often up to the PR practitioners to get out the facts – sometimes after the damage is already done.

Technology today and our ability to contact and engage instantly has greatly enhanced the world’s ability to “do good” – like helping families in Japan search for loved ones in that country’s devastation or raising funds quickly for those in need in Haiti. But it has also increased the opportunities to “do harm” to the reputation of individuals and companies. Who hasn’t heard about Aflac and the benefits they provide to thousands of employees thanks to their famous duck. Now the insurance company finds itself without the voice of the well-known quacker after the actor apparently posted jokes on Twitter mocking the disaster in Japan.

In a meeting with a TV station representative the other day, she mentioned that viewers often write or call the station asking them to do more positive stories. The reality, she noted, is that “positive” does not fare well in ratings. And high ratings are important to advertisers and in turn important to the station’s bottom line.

Far too often, news is disseminated and comments posted before the truth was determined or before the context of comments was known. The above scenarios tell us that, at the very least, we need to read news – and posts – with a bit of skepticism. But the real question is, do we really want the facts, or do we prefer the “juicy” story?

Filed Under: public relations

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