When A Media Outlet Needs PR

January 8th, 2013 by Matt Friedman

Analyzing PR strategies has long been something of a parlor game inside newsrooms. Reporters and editors often do have keen insight into what’s working and what isn’t. But, when their bosses have to enter an adversity communications management situation, they often struggle.

The latest evidence of this is seen now with the Journal News in suburban Westchester County, New York – the newspaper that ignited a national controversy by publishing the names of registered gun owners in its circulation area. While the information was previously public, controversy reigns about its newsworthiness of it, along with privacy concerns and charges of gun demonization, putting the paper at the top of the list of other news outlets politicians, interest groups and ill-intentioned citizens.

In recent days, we have seen reports that journalists have received suspicious packages containing white power and the newspaper itself, along with the homes of both its publisher and its editor, are being protected with armed security. Personal information has been posted online about where journalists live, some have reportedly received threats and bloggers have reportedly encouraged readers to steal journalists’ credit card information.

From a PR perspective, the paper is reiterating its message, which stands by its story. The reporter who wrote the story that accompanied the map told the New York Times, “The people have as much of a right to know who owns guns in their communities as gun owners have to own weapons.” But, I haven’t found anything else that the paper is doing, like convening discussion about the issues or trying to take control of the dialogue in the community it serves.

There is more to PR than media relations and media outlets need to understand this. I once helped a daily newspaper convene twice-monthly community roundtables, for two years after a divisive strike. That type of tactic would help here, especially with the newspaper business in such peril. Newspapers can’t afford to be passive during a time when business preservation is paramount.

Other forms of media often have trouble when the PR is their own. Years ago, a TV station that grabbed ratings by skewering companies that wouldn’t go on camera with them after ambushes had a news reporter accused of using homophobic and racist slurs to a man on a street while out on a story, leading to a criminal charge. When asked by a print reporter about the incident, the station’s general manager ironically responded, “We have no comment, and it’s a company policy not to comment until the investigation is complete.”

Like any other business, the media business can have PR needs. Top management, like that in any other industry, should seek counsel or, at the very least, stop by the newsroom for advice.

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