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More Lessons from the PR War

Something wicked this way came. An FA-18 Hornet, fully armed and loaded, just flew over my Georgia mountain retreat on its way back to Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta. The plane flew so low to the mountains that the entire house shook. The war comes home.

This week I’ll continue using the format I started last week to look at an issue that has been brought up by the U.S.-led war against Iraq and a few general PR issues.

IS THE MEDIA THE ARBITRATOR OF CREDIBILITY?

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a little known media outlet began to receive massive media exposure. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network based in Qatar, has been at the forefront of covering events in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world. With the war raging in Iraq now, the network has been thrust further into its competitor’s glare and the results have been anything but positive.

Al-Jazeera has been bashed for showing pictures of dead U.S. soldiers and running an “interview” of American prisoners of war that was originally shown on the Iraqi-government run television network. The network’s coverage has been decidingly pro-Iraq, or at least pro-Arab, and its newly launched English language website has run what some are calling questionable articles (is it reporting or commentary?).

Al-Jazeera, which cannot be seen in the U.S. without an old C-Band satellite dish (those ugly 12-foot dishes in people’s backyards), has now been banned by both the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. The financial institutions say it has to do with security and the fact that Al-Jazeera doesn’t really cover business. Critics, including media watchdogs in the U.S., contend that the network is being banned because of its war coverage.

What this is really all about is an extension of the PR war that is pitting America and its allies against the rest of the world. While media outlets are supposedly neutral, we know this isn’t always the case. The New York Post for example, the paper I write for, has been running a steady stream of anti-French articles. The French are referred to as “weasels” in the paper. If you’ve watched any of the war coverage, you’ve noticed that the media shines a negative light on anti-war activists and basically anyone who disagrees with the current administration’s actions or views. This is ironic considering how the media was branded “left-wing liberals” during the Clinton years. Is it a right wing tool now?

Cable news outfits such as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, as well as the major broadcast networks, have all openly questioned the credibility of Al-Jazeera’s reporting. Just as Al-Jazeera has questioned the credibility of American and other foreign reporting. But Al-Jazeera is the one facing the problem here.

The U.S. media has long been despised overseas. It has been despised domestically as well. It really has nothing to lose. Al-Jazeera on the other hand is an upstart that reaches out to a much ignored population that has never been accustomed to honest, fair and independent reporting (or at least the illusion of it). After Sept. 11, Al-Jazeera was in a position to make itself one of the most vital media outlets on the planet, both in the Arabic and non-Arabic worlds. But that’s changed now.

Whether Al-Jazeera has really taken an anti-western view of the world or not, the American media has condemned it and that means the American viewer, outside of the Arabic or Muslim community, will never give it any credibility. In the case of Al-Jazeera, the U.S. media has destroyed whatever credibility it had in this hemisphere. And that’s not a good thing.

The media should not arbitrate credibility in certain cases (sometimes it helps to have us serve as a watchdog) and this is one of those cases. Whether you agree with Al-Jazeera’s tone or not, the network is quite independent (Qatar is where the U.S. military’s command and control center is based). What Al-Jazeera is reporting is really no different than what Fox News Channel or CNN is reporting; it’s just the other side of the fence. But in times like these, credibility is the most important thing to the media and when you do something to undermine that credibility, it’s hard to recover.

Is the lesson that you should shy away from controversy or expressing an opinion contrary to popular belief? No, the lesson is that you have to be careful when it comes to the media because it’s quicker to condemn than it is to accept.

THERE IS NOTHING MORE ANNOYING THAN…

A PR person following up on a press release by forwarding you the press release a week later and asking you if you’re “interested in this?”

I realize part of your job is following up on pitches, but do it responsibly. If the first emailed press release was ignored by the journalist, the second one will be also. A proper follow-up would be a personalized note with a brief introduction to what the press release is about. Yeah, it’s time consuming, but it’s better than recycling a press release that was already ignored. Better yet, if the first response to an email blast was poor, put it on the wire and take your chances.

WAIT, THERE IS SOMETHING MORE THAN ANNOYING

You want to know what kind of press releases I hate getting? They start like this:

Ben:

> Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla.
> This product is the best out there.
> Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla.

Those stupid “>” show me a laziness that smacks of amateurism. Those “>” usually denote something has been forwarded. I know how it works, it’s not hard to figure out. You send out a press release, then go to your “Sent Mail” box and forward it on to the next schmuck and throw his name at the top. This is a sure way to have your press release ignored. If nothing else, send it out as a real blind carbon copy (bcc) blast or give the appearance that you know who the intended target actually is.

Another word of advice: Do not begin an email pitch with, “In case you haven’t heard.” Hey, if I haven’t heard yet, it’s not important to me. I’ve been getting some really awful press releases lately and it’s beginning to annoy me.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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