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165. Why Journalists write what they do?

June 28, 2012

Exactly a year ago I went through, in a different context, what the communications lead at Flipkart is going through. Fortunately, I worked with a advertising network which was b2b unlike an e-commerce portal which is b2c. That is when I realised my conviction that a public relations person and a journalist can never be friends unless they choose not to do business with each other.

I have 67 journalist friends on facebook who are batchmates or immediate juniors or immediate seniors and I have never and will never do business with them because I consider our friendship more important. There are countless other college mates (super seniors and super juniors) too, some of whom I have done business with but will not be friends with because then a conflict of interest develops. Being friends is different from being friendly and this is a decision I took way earlier in my career from an ethical stand point as well as an ease of navigating the crazy maze of relationships.

This is something every chief executive and corporate communications manager should appreciate.  You can be friends with a journalist, in that case do not expect him to write good or bad about you – Period. Or you can have a friendly business relationship with the scribe, then in that case do not think of him or her as  friend.

What is most important is to know why journalists choose a topic to write about. They  do for several reasons but most important are

a) To enlighten readers about a service, a product, a issue or an interest

b) To become famous (which is why bylines, exclusives and breaking news rules the day)

c) To satiate a soft corner they have a for a particular issue, company or brand (which is natural)

d) To run down a brand or company they or someone they know has had a bad experience with (so to punish)

e) To create controversy that gets talked of for days (which helps the publication sell)

These are all legitimate and may sound negative but most importantly they write for their readers. Journalists by nature are whistle blowers and activists and when this gets into their head it is dangerous for everyone they encounter. These in turn get them to rise up the career ladder and help them to to become Editors and in some rare cases media advisers to politicians and popes.

The story in question  is what Brand Equity chose to write about my then employer (read here) . Several facts were concocted or misreported. A threat to legally sue them for inaccuracies that were detrimental to one or two persons at  careers  led them to carry a rejoinder in print the following fortnight.

Three things we did right were :

a) To not request that the letter from the CEO be carried online. That would lead to people who read the actual paper not know a rejoinder was carried online – we insisted it only be carried in the hard copy

b) To first have a series of conversations with the Editor on phone  to set expectations right before sending a mail

c) We only refuted false claims and factually incorrect statements. We did not compare it with other stories the publication had done in the past about our competitors and how they were positive

What we appreciated was that journalists do not write for companies they write about but for its readers.  The readers could be past and present employees, present and future clients/customers and most importantly stories that are not positive are wake up calls to management to wake up and smell the coffee. Hope victims of negative stories learn to understand where a journalist comes from.

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