The media’s role

The media is awash with content generated by public relations writers. Their goal is to place material in editorial content rather than advertorial.

Advertorial comprises pseudo articles written by an advertiser who pays to promote a cause or business. It has no more credibility than paid advertising which, of course, it is. It’s featured in many newspapers and earns them a lot of money. Editorial, conversely, is objective content and carries a lot more credibility. Reporters employed by the publisher ask you questions and report your answers because they believe them to be informative and even interesting. No one charges you for this.

To feature in editorial you must interest reporters sufficiently to be thought worthy of adding to a story. In this, a positive story should be told. It’s not difficult to feature in a news story, just toss a few eggs at the Queen or dance around parliament’s corridors wearing a pink bra – any fool can get in the newspapers but the challenge is to feature positively in news stories. This is a challenge that tries the minds of the best public relations practitioners.

Your featuring in a straight, editorial news story happens because your story is so interesting that it earns its place. You may have developed a new tool or service and it interests a reporter enough that he or she writes about you. An alternative is that an event happens and you’re well enough known to the reporter who calls you as someone to put the event into perspective. This is the local expert role and it’s a good one.

Here’s an example, probably a world away from where you operate but it’s an illustration: Reporters are generally pressed for time so an event involving police discipline or an upheaval in the hierarchy is difficult to cover comprehensively as deadlines approach. They almost invariably reach for Greg Connor, the Police Association President, overlooking that Mr. O’Connor is a union representative for policemen and policewomen, I have often witnessed reporters quoting him as though he were an independent observer. This happens in print and on radio and particularly on television. The next time Close Up on TVNZ reports an issue involving a serious incident such as a police shooting, watch for Greg Connor being interviewed, seemingly as a disinterested expert.

Paul Brislen is the chief executive of a telecommunications lobby and industry group, TUANZ. When disputes between Telstra/Clear and Telecom happen or when controversy arises over the continued imposition of the Kiwi Share on Telecom, for example, Mr. Brislen is quoted as a local expert, rather than a person with an extreme self interest (on behalf of his members, business users of telecommunications services, who pay his wages through their membership fees).

What is Greg O’Connor going to say on an Issue? “I think all police are overpaid and many are inexperienced, arrogant little sods.” Hardly. Would Paul Brislen, for example, praise a hefty price rise by Telecom that cemented Telecom’s viability but which socked his members’ wallets, even if Telecom had been too cheap previously? Of course he wouldn’t.

There are many examples of people with professional self-interest being sought for comment and opinion on stories that they didn’t start but on which, it’s implied, by the unchallenged reportage of their opinions, that they’re disinterested observers: Andy Haden on rugby and celebrities generally – he’s a professional promoter and agent; . Doctors’ union (it calls itself an ‘association’) assertions that their members are overworked and underpaid; primary teachers’ union trotting out a similar argument at the start of each school year as they rail against alleged teacher shortages. These comments come from people with self-interest in the outcome but many reporters swallow the arguments rather than report alternative viewpoints.

A quirky example of someone developing himself into a local expert emerged in the mid nineties. Trevor Rogers, then National MP, Howick was an obscure back bencher and no expert on the Internet but he seized on pornography and how to censor it on the recently emerged Internet and gained the highest profile he’d ever enjoyed by being quoted and reported throughout the country for a year in all media. His suggestions were impractical but reporters wrote thousands of words about him at the time and let him lead the debate. He succeeded in attracting attention by carefully choosing his subject and banging on about it loudly enough to be heard and noticed.

To become a local expert as the people mentioned above have, is to be honoured with extreme and positive exposure in editorial content. It means the simplest way for a reporter to put something into context or to have an opinion (other than his or her own) is to pick up the phone and take a few quotes from the local expert. The local experts are not doing anything wrong. They just use the system well. You can too, albeit on a more modest scale seeing you’re just starting out but others have leapt to prominence quickly just by tickling the media’s fancies.

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