By Linda Forrest
Does everyone remember the game broken telephone? There’s a brilliant example of it from the Simpsons that added the phrase “Purple monkey dishwasher” to the lexicon of some circles.
What does this have to do with B2B marketing? When it comes to the media, quite a bit, as it turns out.
As Francis Moran wrote recently, while media coverage is more credible than paid advertising, the message is hard to control:
Media relations practitioners have no say over how much space their story will get, where or when it will run, or what other messages — even opposing messages — might also run in the same story. You can mitigate this lack of control and vastly increase your chances of achieving your desired outcome, however, through the effective and strategic planning of your media relations efforts along with a sharp tactical understanding of how newsrooms operate.
In today’s age of media aggregation, it becomes even more challenging to control the message as media coverage that could be incorrect, misleading, or otherwise wrong can mutate and propagate well beyond the initial piece.
What is media aggregation? Rather than have a dedicated editorial team whose job it is to find the story from a variety of sources, craft a compelling narrative and report on the topic at hand, the go-to-market approach of sites like Google News, TechMeme, and Huffington Post was to scour other media sites, curate and aggregate stories that already exist, and repost them, either with just a headline, a precis or a summary. This model can introduce a host of questionable behaviours – from so-called “slave labour,” to flat-out plagiarism and from a messaging perspective introduces or amplifies the broken telephone element.
Media aggregation is nothing new, as a recent Slate article pointed out:
Publications have been rewriting other publication’s stories since the dawn of journalism. Time magazine made a business out of blatantly rewriting daily newspaper stories for a national weekly audience in the 1920s. “We don’t pretend to be reporters at Time. We are rewrite men,” a top Time staffer once told a group of his editors.
A key distinction between aggregation and original reporting is the cost: the former is decidedly cheap, while the latter, if done right, is expensive. In part due to the cost factor, but also, changing media consumption habits, the popularity of an aggregation approach is at an unprecedented level.
On the point of media consumption changing, Fortune reports:
[Media consultant Clay] Shirky also noted how the newspaper business thrived for decades because it sold its products in a bundle. Most people were interested in sports, gossip, entertainment features, comics, classified ads, coupons and the like; relatively few were interested in what was supposedly the main product: news. The other stuff – the stuff people actually cared about – financed coverage of serious news, something that we need whether or not many people actually want to read it. The Web is unbundled by its nature (you can get classifieds at Craiglist, sports at ESPN.com, and celeb gossip at TMZ.com), forcing news, in most cases, to make it on its own.
While his point is less valid for strictly B2B outlets that are by definition free of the supplemental news items, when it comes to either consumer-focused or more horizontally-focused business or technology outlets this does come into play.
The irony is that everything old is new again, even when it comes to so-called new media models: it has been reported that Huffington Post itself is shifting away from its aggregator roots and moving to a newspaper model. Whether that shift indicates a vindication for legacy media or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide for yourself.
How can content marketing help mitigate the effects of the media’s echo chamber of erroneous information?
Develop and make available clear information that suits a range of information channels
Your company should have a newsroom on its web site that adheres to best practices, wherein your company information is available in choose-your-size portions: a quick sentence about your company that answers the question what it does and for whom; a fact sheet that offers at-a-glance information about your company, its technology, key executives, market facts and other interesting aspects of your story; full backgrounders on the company and its technology and full biographies for key spokespeople.
By offering company information in various sizes, media – whether aggregating or not – can select the depth and breadth of information right for their purposes with minimal editing required, resulting in lower likelihood that your message will be mangled in the process.
Hire PR resources that know how newsrooms operate
With a PR team that knows what content reporters and editors need in order to cover you, and a fulsome understanding of just how newsrooms work, you are on your way to communicating your message clearly and effectively to the media who then broadcast it to your market. Without a fulsome understanding of a particular outlet’s reporting style, resource requirements and preferred way of working with sources, PR practitioners can be barking up the wrong tree, trying to put a round peg in a square hole and so any coverage that does result is likely to not meet the communications objectives of the company. In the technology realm especially, if you’re not providing clear information and not targeting the right media, there’s great potential for miscommunication and misleading coverage.
Choose your battles
The sad reality is that the media will get it wrong some of the time. Journalists, especially in a world with a 24-hour news cycle, just don’t have the time and resources to fact check everything. As a result, your messaging – and straight up facts – will get misconstrued, transcribed incorrectly or have any other manner of indignity bestowed upon them. Depending on the nature and scope of the error, it’s up to you and your PR team to determine whether it’s best to let the erroneous information remain in the marketplace or if it’s time to send in the clean up crew. It’s challenging to correct all instances of an error in the echo chamber that is social media, so every consideration should be made as to whether the correction is necessary or the aberration is acceptable. If key messages are wrong in a high-profile piece, or your company, technology or executives are woefully mischaracterized, it’s essential to fix it. If they spelled your VP’s name incorrectly, you can have them correct it for next time, but a full-scale correction and retraction order may not be warranted. Errors must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and only you and your team can deem what’s acceptable to your organisation.
As a Reuters article on this topic recently stated, speaking to journalists upset about poor aggregation of their original reporting:
Worrying about every place that posts a summary of your content without permission is a mug’s game. If a poorly aggregated, hastily rewritten version of your content can compete with what you do, and offer more (or even as much) value to the reader over the long term, then you have a lot bigger problems than just The Huffington Post.
From a PR perspective, the same is also true. Discerning prospects, customers, partners, investors and other stakeholders will recognise when content has real value and when it doesn’t. As a rule, we don’t consider a media hit as counting towards our program objectives unless it meets a set of specific criteria; almost without exception, this criteria rules out bit pieces run by aggregated media sites.
As the Reuters piece said, aggregation is “part of the future of media,” as it has been a pillar (if largely unspoken) of the industry in the past. As content creators, by taking the steps above, we better ensure the integrity of your message in the media marketplace. Speaking for our firm, we take great care to do so. But it’s inevitable that sometimes the media still gets it wrong. In deciding whether to chase down outlets that spread misinformation through aggregation, we must consider the level of influence of each outlet and how far the ripples of misinformation are being spread.