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Journalism moves beyond straight reporting; PR pros must adjust

The practice of  journalism is rapidly evolving with huge implications to the media relations practitioner.

Remember the ideal of a fair-and-balanced, impartial, “just the facts, ma’am” news reporter? Gone like yesterday’s newspaper.

corrige dissertation philosophie So says Columbia University’s Tow Center of Digital Journalism in a lengthy report “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

News today is increasingly parsed together by computer algorithm, viewed on smart-phones, reduced to snarky headlines and tweeted and retweeted within like-minded communities. “Citizen journalists” provide instant on-the-scene accounts devoid of fact-checking. (Here‘s another excellent perspective–from Naureen Aqueel in Pakistan–on the integration of cit-j into the new newsroom.)

The result, say the authors of the report:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation. …

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.

Today’s professional journalists must dig deeper, add perspective and nuance. They must inject their personalities into the stories they cover. (Back in the day, they called that “New Journalism”–e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. What’s old is new again.)

The Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman reflects on the Tow Center “manifesto” in a thought-provoking column today (thereby demonstrating this new ideal by adding clarity and insight):

This is an era for the journalist who uses critical thinking to interpret and analyze, whether it’s working with data sets, interviewing aggressively or calling BS on conventional wisdom.

This is an era for the journalist who knows how to put herself into her work. Not, necessarily, her opinions or biases — but her personality, energy and voice. “The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world,” the authors write. “Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist.”

The Tow Center report focuses, of course, on the implications for journalists. But what does all this mean to the PR pro?

My take? We should think about potential news coverage two ways.

  • Hard news”  like earnings and personnel announcements should be kept brief and to the point. What the old dogs among us will remember as “inverted pyramid.” Get the principle facts in the first sentence or two, uncluttered with hyperbole or fluff. Follow that with a single hyper-pertinent quote from the appropriate senior person. Then provide a link to a more detailed summary that leads to another link to the full text. Remember you are writing for news aggregators and your Twitter community. Don’t feel put out that they will read only a sentence or two plus one quote. Be happy you have their momentary attention and work to regain it again and again. (And work diligently to quickly correct misinformation through traditional media, the news aggregators and directly to your followers.)
  • Feature stories and in-depth reporting requires a different approach. Get to know the reporters who cover your company and industry (this hasn’t changed; PR has always been a people profession). Understand each individual’s expertise, interests and quirks. Be on the look-out for ways to invite a writer in and participate in the story. The pay-off is obvious–if the journalist enjoys the experience, so will the readers/viewers.

- Jon Harmon

BP keeps paying through the nose, but will the public stop holding its nose at BP?

Add another $4.5 billion today to the total of still-accruing costs to BP for its massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.  That’s the amount BP agreed to pay the U.S. government in its guilty plea to criminal charges connected with the deaths of 11 off-shore rig workers as well as the not-insignificant matter of lying to Congress.

The $4.5B is on top of the rapidly evaporating $20B in trust funds the oil company set aside to clean up the mess and to compensate the communities and individuals for property damages. All told, the company has booked $38.1B to cover the costs of the spill. But costs may very well exceed that figure; the settlement reached today specifically does not cover fines stipulated by the Clean Water Act that could reach as high as $20B (the Act calls for fines of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel spilled; multiply the upper figure in that range by five million barrels of oil spilled).

There truly aren’t many companies that could absorb such massive penalties and continue to do business. And, of course, BP’s very deep pockets are a contributing factor in the magnitude of damages assessed to the company. At some point you have to wonder, how much is enough? Still you won’t find too many in the public feeling sorry for the mammoth oil company. Next to the Wall Street “banksters” who collectively deserve much of the blame for the financial credit markets meltdown that precipitated the Great Recession, BP has few peers as a poster-child for corporate malfeasance, though Bernie Madoff deserves a special Dishonorable Mention in the “individual” category.

So it is that even after BP settles all of its criminal and civil legal obligations, it must continue to make progress on the rehabilitation of its reputation. Are oil and gas customers who have stayed away from BP in the after-math of the oil spill satisfied with the fines and penalties assessed the company and in the clean-up and restitution efforts that are now largely complete?

And, finally, are they convinced that BP is a different company now, committed to doing the right thing against a triple-bottom line accounting (people, planet, profit)?

A crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate an organization’s values, or to reevaluate its values. Criminal actions that led to the oil spill and the death of the rig workers came out of a company needing to revaluate its values, as did the well-documented missteps of BP Chairman Tony Heyward, “winner” of Force for Good’s 2010 PR Disaster of the Year. Since then, the company has demonstrated a new value system that can genuinely be applauded: a dedication to the cleanup and restoration of the Gulf shores, and a humility in acknowledging its culpability and its responsibility to make things right.

here —Jon Harmon