Breaking News-Letter - June 15, 2004
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And now to Barnett Marketing Communication’s Breaking News-Letter©
How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations©
June 15, 2004
News. Lots of news. And that news is going to impact how we practice public relations in the days, weeks and months to come. Sometimes the news will have just a small impact on PR; sometimes the news will have a profound impact on what we’re able to do.
The death and funeral of President Ronald Reagan demonstrated the power of breaking-news events to disrupt the normal flow of both press coverage and the activity of public relations professionals. Reporters and editors are human, and are as susceptible as the rest of us to distractions caused by fascinating and compelling news stories. So for a full week, from Saturday through Friday, the business of public relations slowed dramatically.
This ability of news stories to slow – or stop entirely – PR efforts really hit home to me in the aftermath of the terrorist strike on September 11, 2001. For weeks after we all witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers and the deaths of 3,000 Americans, reporters and editors were as shell-shocked as the rest of us – and at least until the first week in October, efforts to pitch business-as-usual news stories largely fell on deaf ears. This shocking event, and its unanticipated PR backlash, began to crystallize in me an awareness of the impact of both unexpected and “scheduled” news stories. As a result, I began to track, measure and evaluate the impact of these on the practice of public relations.
The result of this is “Breaking News-Letter©.”
This news-letter (pardon the pun) is intended to help those of us in public relations to plan ahead. In each issue, we’ll consider upcoming scheduled (and anticipated breaking-news) stories that have the potential to directly or indirectly impact our ability to place our news.
Some of these big-foot stories will impact all of the media, but most of them will only selectively limit our ability to reach reporters, editors, producers and webmasters. But when the news intervenes, all we can do is go with the flow. These are, after all, the people who are the defacto gateways between public relations practitioners and the public at large, and when something in news or society catches and holds their attention, we either climb on that particular bandwagon or wait patiently for the parade to pass.
Every season has it’s “super-stories©,” over-arching 800-pound gorilla society-wide events that transcend their own niches and effect all of us – as well as the media that serves us. The balance of this year will have more than its fair share of super-stories. As we face the balance of 2004, it would do well for all of us in PR to consider how these 800-pound gorillas will impact, shape or limit our abilities to pitch stories to the media, and to generate positive coverage for our clients or employers.
We're now facing, in addition to the annual summer family-vacation season, two Presidential conventions, the 9/11 anniversary and the Presidential election. Then we’ll be facing the annual holiday season, but this one particularly important because of the outcome of the election and the potentially shaky nature of the economic recovery. All of these super-stories will tend to slow down PR’s ability to effectively pitch – our news contacts will be on vacation, or distracted, or even involved in the super-stories themselves.
Although it’s been three years now, the 9/11 anniversary will still have an impact, one that will be enhanced by the focus brought on that tragedy’s remembrance by the Republican National Convention, held in New York the week before the anniversary. One “hidden” reason why this date will have an impact – many of the nation’s media offices are located in Manhattan, some just blocks away from the Twin Towers. On 9/11, I was in a hotel room in the SF Bay area, getting regularly-updated bulletins from the editor of a niche-market business journal, based on what he could see out of his window. Even though not all media are in New York, and not all businesses will be directly effected by 9/11, count on many of them to look for ways to tie in this national disaster to their breaking-news coverage.
Presidential election years always capture a greater portion of the media’s attention, all the more so when the elections are close. This year will see an election that most pundits predict will be extremely close, and signs are already clear that the election will be hotly contested. New election-financing laws, the scheduling of the political conventions, the ongoing war in Iraq (and the related war on terrorism) – and the tightness of the 2000 election – will all tend to focus media attention on this election.
This media attention will spill over into the business media – touching issues of trade, interest rates, taxes and increased governmental regulations – as well as into the entertainment and popular culture media. Let’s take a quick look at a few of them.
Hollywood is lined up on one side; defenders of the cultural status quo are arrayed on the other side; and both seem to see this election as a near-apocalyptic referendum on truth, justice and their vision of The American Way. There is not a business issue or market niche that won’t be touched by the election, and this will both shape coverage over the next four months, but will directly impact PR’s ability to pitch stories. Just getting reporters to care about your “new” v.6.5 release of software, or the upgraded, redesigned widget will be a real challenge.
All of the negative impact of these 800-pound gorillas will change if, in some way, you can tie your news to one of the season’s dominant super-stories. For example, many almost-unrelated businesses – especially those with corporate histories that date back to the 1940s – made PR capital out of the long-planned dedication of the World War II Memorial. In the war, wood-workers made assault gliders or landing craft and sewing-machine manufactures produced machine guns – and all of them had the chance to reflect on that faded glory with self-congratulatory press releases and PR outreaches that found fertile ground in the media.
The super-story for 2004 has got to be the US Presidential Election. No election has begun so early – the Democrats front-loaded their primaries, and the Republican President had no in-party challenger – which means that the final candidates were both selected by March. That’s a full four months earlier than usual. This could lead to voter burn-out, it seems certain that as the polls show candidates locked in a statistical dead-heat, the campaigns will get ever nastier … and ever more newsworthy. Which means that in the next four months, the media – not just the political media, but almost all of the sub-sets of the media – will become more caught up in the election battle.
There will be at least four media “high points” in this election cycle, time-centered events that will suck all the oxygen out of any media that covers national politics:
The Democratic Convention in mid-July
The Republican Convention in late August
The three scheduled debates in late September and early October
The final two-week “sprint” to the ballot box
If your pitches are targeting reporters, editors or producers who follow the election as a major news story, these four time-periods might be good times to take a break. Update your CRM databases, clear out your e-mail in box, clock out early to catch a round of golf with the boss, or just kick back and relax. However, if your media targets are less professionally focused on politics, you should still be aware that their interest may be distracted during this time period.
PR Tip: Find ways of tying your news pitches into the election – directly or indirectly. Be very creative – remember that lots of your PR colleagues will be trying the same thing, too.
An 800-Pound Gorilla Story
The commemoration of the 9/11 Terror Attack will again capture the media’s attention for the week leading up to that date. This will have some impact on your pitching, but won’t skew coverage in the way it did in 2002. However, if terrorists try to revisit their “success” of three years ago – something that seems to be keeping the FBI burning the midnight oil – then expect this story to become much bigger, even if the terrorists fail.
In fact, the potential for terror attacks later this year may prove to be the sleeper “800-pound Gorilla” story. This potential will be a major focus of coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; the Olympics in Athens, Greece; the three Presidential-level debates, and the election itself. Then, if no terrorists strike during these events, we can expect to see a replay of concern over terrorist strikes during the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year. Whenever this highly-focused attention comes up, opportunities will be created for those of us whose clients in some way touch security – or the economic or social impact of terror attacks – but the rest of us can use the time to catch up on our filing.
This year, the “seasonal” story – how well products are selling, how many jobs are being created, things like that – will have a rebound in interest. This will reflect, first, a return to “normalcy” after the endless coverage of the Presidential campaign. But intensive coverage will also be focused here as the media – in all segments – tries to read economic tea-leaves for 2005. This year has been a year of recovery, but polls show that people don’t really believe that the economy is bouncing back; in those kinds of “official” (i.e., media-determined) economic insecurity, count on an increased level of media coverage.
Offshoots of this intense media focus will be the new perennial stories on whether or not e-commerce has come of age, as well as a careful tracking of those dinosaur industries (department stores, catalog operations, other “traditional” sources of Christmas spending). There will be lots of opportunities for savvy PR folks to cash in on this predictable media obsession – but for those of us with no tie-ins to the holiday season, it will be an exceptionally quiet period, one in which pitching efforts will bear few fruits.
Breaking News-Letter – How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations
Editor, Ned Barnett; Research Director, Karol Ann Barnett
© 2004, Ned Barnett, Barnett Marketing Communications
http://www.barnettmarcom.com – 702-696-1200
About Ned Barnett:
Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.
Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.