If Companies Were Skin Colors, We’d Call It Rascism: Breaking Free of Media Archetypes

In this followup to my last post, I’ll explore further the idea of archetypes in business media coverage and how to tell your company’s story when faced with unfavorable type-casting in the media.

From the UK, Heather Yaxley’s comment to my last post undoubtedly speaks for many in the media and in university journalism schools the world over — wary of corporate spin-meisters packaging news in the form of a saccharin narrative but much less conscious of the preponderance of archetypes masquerading as balanced coverage in the media.

Journalists and editors indeed are often influenced by their preconceptions. Story assignments are made necessarily based on incomplete reporting — a television station cannot commit a crew’s time to develop a piece until there is a sniff of important news, or better yet, scandal. Reporters often select or even bend facts to fit the assumed script that has earned a piece of the news budget. If a reporter comes back with something less or different than what an editor expects, the reporter is often sent back to do more reporting. 

Victims need sympathetic qualities; heroes speak virtuously; villains act maliciously. Facts and details that don’t quite square with the preconceived story-line are sometimes rejected out-of-hand (by bush-league editors or those on deadline). More astute editors see these incongruencies as important ingredients to the story, adding nuance and depth to otherwise one-dimensional characters. 

But sometimes these at-odds-with-the-storyline-as-we-see-it facts are indications that the story does not so neatly fit with the archetype and therefore a new thesis must be considered. In science, this is seen as progress. The scientific method entails the testing of hypothesis after hypothesis until truth emerges. Thomas Edison remained committed to his project of developing a workable light bulb even after repeated failures to find the right material for a filament to burn inside the bulb, saying: "If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. Every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

Edison also said: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

Those aren’t the words of a editor on deadline.

In my last post, I discussed the "David and Goliath" archetype in which members of the Fourth Estate depict a heroic "little guy" trying to stand-up against an evil empire. If the company you represent is being forced into this archetype, you must work to show the many human faces truly at work at your corporation. Do not let your company be portrayed as a impersonal monolith callously putting profit before safety. Show real-life engineers at work problem-solving. Invite the journalist in to see the real people behind the scenes. This may mean persuading cautious senior leaders (and legal counsel) against taking the easy way out and replying in writing to media questions — but a terse written statement (or worse, an inscrutable block of legalese) reinforces the stereotype of monolithic, inhuman corporation. Find a well-spoken, likable and real representative who can tell your story well. Slickness is not the quality we’re going for here; but rather an ordinary "someone like me" who the reporter (as well as the viewer or reader) can empathize with. 

Remember, though, that you may be inserting characters that play against type and you might have to persuade the journalist (or editor) that the people and the actions you show them are real. Prejudice is an insidious blindness; countering it can be very difficult. If your company is being unfairly force-fit into an archetype, you have to push back hard to make the blind see what’s truly there.

What other archetypes do we find in business media coverage? How can the public relations manager combat the negative stereotypes included in these forced story lines?

- Jon Harmon

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