Social media has given everyone a voice. While some use this for good, others are less altruistic. Competing narratives are everywhere – and a concern for businesses who need to maintain their positive reputations.
A high–profile example of the problems facing the public was provided during the UK election campaign. It had been standard fare, a subdued campaign trail. That was until one image on the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post propelled the upsetting sight of a very ill boy sleeping on the floor of the Leeds General Infirmary to the forefront of the election.
The hospital apologised to the family of Jack, four, who was being admitted with suspected pneumonia. The reason he was sleeping on the floor was due to “exceptionally high levels of demand” causing a lack of beds.
But despite this official NHS statement, claims were quickly made that the photo was staged.
An information war ensued with journalists getting caught out by their ‘sources’, with some parroting dubious claims found on the internet, with Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson tweeting it was all staged, while others claimed the Health Secretary was punched as he arrived at the hospital. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg tweeted: ‘So Matt Hancock was despatched to Leeds General…to try to sort out mess, heading Labour activists scrambled to go…and it turned nasty when they arrived – one of them punched Hancock’s adviser’. ITV’s Robert Peston added that he had been told by ‘senior Tories’ that the aide had been ‘whacked’. All false.
The image had a big impact on the media and dominated the headlines with many confused about who to trust. It was a story that quickly spiralled out of control and it is at these times that having access to the key messengers – the journalists – can really help set the record straight.
I was a BBC journalist for more than 15 years. I fully understand the pressure that correspondents face, with social media only adding to the strain. I have been at the sharp end when a breaking story demands new information. As the world awaited news of the plane crash involving the Argentinan footballer Emiliano Sala, I had people telling me he was alive, holding out on Burhou. Another story that ran the risk of racing out of control was the case of a man who killed six people, including his wife and children, in Jersey back in 2011. Newsroom chiefs in London were asking me why a tabloid newspaper had different information to me, providing a new headline. I had refused to run with it until I could prove it was true; it turned out to be false. But mistakes do happen and sometimes a person or organisation can become drawn into a story. How you respond can be critical to the flow of that narrative.
When your organisation is the news
While businesses might not need to deal with these types of issues, it is all too easy to find yourself the centre of attention. A data breach, a disgruntled employee, a desperate competitor seeking an advantage; when a media frenzy erupts, organisations cannot go silent. We recommend several ways to retain control of the story:
- SPEED – Recognising the need to make quick decisions – whether to intervene to influence the story or let things lie.
- VISIBILITY – On occasions, businesses need to fill the noise vacuum promptly with official comment, or someone else will. A pledge of action to find out what has happened can help ease the media enquiries.
- PROACTIVE – Communicate cautiously and consistently.
- AWARENESS – Not all stories wither away within a few days, some are drawn out and a watching brief is required. Companies need to counter future attempts to distort the truth in their message.
- RELATIONSHIPS – Having a trusting relationship with the right journalist can go a long way to getting YOUR true message out.
At Orchard PR, we work closely and continuously with journalists to build, nurture and maintain trusting, two-way relationships.
Sometimes it seems impossible to get the right information across, because competing narratives can seem very convincing. The media landscape continues to change, but with the right guidance and the appropriate action, you can ensure you always own your own story.