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Published on June 15th, 2012 | by Michael Hansen

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On Newspapers II

On Wednesday, I wrote a blog post about The Birmingham News’ layoff announcements and new “digital strategy.” I typed up some notes on why I’m worried about the future of journalism in Birmingham and Alabama and, eventually, the rest of the country. But the bottom line is that none of us knows how this will play out. We have to operate in “wait and see” mode, making sure our concerns and hopes are heard along the way. The rest is out of our control: It is going to happen.

But that leads me to part two of my ramblings about print media, journalism and this information society we’ve created. I work in public relations. That is no secret. My primary goal is to communicate with my clients’ audiences (public) in ways that inform them, alert them, inspire them, and so on. I create a two-way dialogue that is mutually beneficial for both. My primary task is media relations. That is, I try to get those same clients news coverage, from regional papers to local TV to community journals to magazines to radio programs … and national media as well, when it’s warranted.

The truth is that sometimes your client isn’t newsworthy. It’s my job to figure out how to make them newsworthy, and that means working with reporters, editors, radio hosts and TV anchors. Many people believe PR people are spinsters (i.e., liars) who use the media to manipulate the public from a one-sided point of view. Frankly, those people do exist and they are reviled among true public relations professionals. Communication works both ways; spin is one-way propaganda and we want nothing to do with it.

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Wednesday night, I stumbled upon — well, I scrolled by — this picture (above), which appears to be original to Birmingham blogger Wade Kwon. Since that’s where all roads led me to, that’s whom I’ll credit. It was being shared on Facebook and Twitter, generating a fair amount of buzz. His point was, I think, about how poorly the three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, (Mobile) Press-Register and The Huntsville Times — handled their layoffs versus the way the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune covered its layoffs. I’m fine with that. I agree with the sentiment. What sticks in my craw is how boldly this “infographic” blatantly throws public relations — an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of true professionals — under the bus. While I don’t believe it was unintentional, it is a part of the public relations meme.

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So, I edited the original (new image above) to illustrate the point I just made above about propaganda versus PR. The Birmingham News employed euphemistic messaging (what I would call spin) as code for layoffs and did not bother to interview any of the staff affected by the changes or anyone from the community who might have expressed concern. In reality this was a case of straightforward, top-down, corporate damage control via company owned media more than anything else. I actually read the Times-Picayune story and it was no less plain than the one that appeared in The Birmingham News, the only differences being the priority placement (above the fold), the headline (it was big, bold and used the phrase “lays off”) and the photographs that humanized the story.

The content of both newspapers was still what I would consider spin, though it is a relieving that that The Times-Picayune wrote an original story, whereas three Alabama papers ran the same story from al.com staff (who were also affected by the layoffs). Each transitioned back to the new companies being formed in the fall and their new digital focus. The T-P wins the battle of news coverage, but only by comparison; Fox News would have looked fair and balanced compared to The Birmingham News’ reporting. Self-reporting is always a conflict of interest in some way or another. Even still, it is not fair to call one PR and call one pure news.

The point is this: I strongly believe in my profession and I strongly believe in journalism. If I have to side with one, I will always err on the side of journalistic truth and not corporate spin. My clients know this. That’s why they like me. I won’t lie for them. That’s what attorneys are for. I tell stories. I get their message out. I try to do those things in ways I believe benefit the public, or at least their public.

So, the point of all this rambling is that I believe public relations professionals (and communications people more broadly) ought to uplift our community. We must pledge from here on out to look out for Birmingham and be its biggest fans and loudest storytellers.

The Fourth Estate is at risk. It is up to us to make sure it remains strong and healthy. If you’re in a new store that just blew your mind, offer them some pro-bono consulting. A couple of hours won’t kill you. If you’re at a dinner party and a friend tells an incredible story that makes everyone laugh or cry, tell it to a reporter. Is something bothering you about there not being sidewalks in your neighborhood? Do some research and send it to The News. Above all, make honesty a priority in your pitches. People already think we’re deceptive and manipulative; the last thing we need is for you to prove it.

I don’t want to come across as self-righteous, but I feel a special obligation to make sure the journalists we all rely on are appreciated, not used. I think we should all feel this way, but especially those of us working in a public relations.

[Also, help those soon to be displaced find a job. ALNewsJobs, which Luckie and Company’s David Griner launched, is a great jobs resource on both Twitter and Facebook. If you can’t help with that, at least buy your favorite journo(s) a beer to say thanks for their work.]

 

Note: Edited for clarity in a couple of spots. Specifically, the comparison of The Birmingham News and The Times-Picayune stories.

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About the Author

My name is Michael Hansen. Born and raised in the South — Memphis, Tenn., to be precise — I am a firm believer that food and drink bring family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and enemies together like nothing else on the planet. I live and play in Birmingham, Ala., where I own a small marketing and website design firm called Mud Pie Creative Lab with my siblings. I am an avid foodie, wannabe writer, so-so music critic, aspiring gardener, day dreamer, college sports fanatic, animal lover, news junkie, problem solver and all-around nice guy. Google



3 Responses to On Newspapers II

  1. Wade Kwon says:

    Thanks for the credit, Michael — that is in fact my infographic. (I knew I should’ve stuck my name on there.)

    I didn’t intend to disparage PR as an industry. I just wanted to point out that the same press release that ran on al.com the day before magically appeared on all three Advance Alabama front pages the next day.

    But in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune did (what appears to me) an honestly reported story about the internal layoffs. A huge difference between its approach and the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Press-Register of Mobile.

    For example, the T-P story is bylined, has hard numbers and names some of the staff members affected. Are you throwing T-P reporter Jaquetta White under the bus, too? I guess spin and credibility is in the eye of the beholder.

    I agree with you that public relations done right is an asset. I’m proud to know plenty of accredited PR professionals, as you do, who are to be lauded for their work and their approach. And I’m grateful to work with people on their PR projects.

    Thanks for your insights.

    • Hansen says:

      Hi there, Wade! Thanks for commenting. First, let me say that the bit in the middle about the infographic has absolutely nothing to do with you personally or your view of public relations. This is a piece about public relations in general and your infographic was a timely representation of the way PR is perceived. The notion of us PR folk as propagandists is wrong, I believe. Instead, I think your visual was a perfect way to explain how not to do PR. I say all that to say, my point is about how people think of public relations and how we, its practitioners, should behave.

      But to your comment about Jaquetta White, I added a little clarity to make sure that my opinion is clear. The T-P story was infinitely better than the BN story. But it’s not because Ms. White did an in-depth report on the layoffs and public sentiment. It was an adequate story, but it was still corporate communications … albeit corporate communications done right. Self-reporting is hard and often a conflict of interest, so I get the need to strike a balance and not compromise your business. I don’t think it’s remotely fair to say I threw a journalist under the bus for accurately critiquing her work.

      The Birmingham News took the exact opposite approach and the side-by-side comparison is nothing if not stunning. It could have only been worse if they’d buried it in the Local section. That said, that wasn’t PR; it was corporate propaganda. We don’t know why they took that approach (efficiency across a statewide publishing company, perhaps?), but we do know that public relations is a mutually beneficial and honest broker at the table. Announcing that hundreds of News staff will be fired with the horribly spun line, “400 employees statewide will experience an employment loss” is shameful. We agree on that.

      And more importantly, we agree that this is a big deal. It is an opportunity, I believe, to figure out a way to do all this better. And I believe we — all communicators — must be vigilant and at the table to make that happen.

      • Wade Kwon says:

        Thanks, Michael. I’m just glad some other folks are writing about it. From the silence in town, it doesn’t seem like many bloggers, PR professionals or members of the business community have any strong feelings one way or another about the precarious situation of the newspapers.

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