Light is an amazing thing.
As a photographer, I’m constantly reminded of that as I look at the world. A scene that’s flat and dead at noon can be turned into an amazing tapestry by the low sun of dawn. Later, details that were hidden by that same low angle light can be so obvious in the glare of midday that you ask yourself, “How could I not see that?” I’ve thought of that comparison lately as I’ve considered how I look at corporate communications and PR differently these days. It’s amazing how my perspective has changed since I left newspapers.
During my years in the newsroom I saw what I did as a public service, informing the public about the reality of the world in contrast to the rose-colored glasses view we would get from the PR industry. The press releases were endless, like a fire hose hooked up to the fax machine, notifying us of the latest great developments everywhere that had a PR person, from what we could see.
There was never any shortage of follow-ups either, to make absolutely sure we would be there for the event, that we understood the story, were writing accurately (as they saw it) and would be getting it “right.” It all got more than a bit tiring in the context of the million other things we were also trying to get done by deadline.
But then I jumped the fence, going to corporate communications at GE in Schenectady for the past few years. From that angle, I’ve gotten a great look at the whole spectrum of public communications from the other side—the “dark side” as we joked about it in the newsroom.
And guess what? . . . Those stories in the paper or on the evening newscast look a bit different now. Fancy that. Amazing how things change when the light shifts direction.
The public service I saw myself performing turned into a subtle spin of emphasizing the negative, pumping up the controversy in almost any story. I’ve seen that it’s possible to write a story that is accurate as far as it goes, but says things in such a way, or leaves out just enough information, to find the dark cloud in every liver lining.
It’s often a subtle distinction. Just a few words in a published story can make the source look completely different. The “concerned critique” in a public meeting can become a “scathing indictment.” The confidential discussions required by law or prudent business practice can become a “secret deal.”
How could this be? The same people I worked with are still covering the stories. They’re good people. They work hard. They have principles. They seem to try hard to get the facts right. These are people I would go have a beer with and solve all the troubles of the world at Friday happy hour.
But I understand more than ever now that bad is good in much of today’s media. Controversy builds readership—and not just for grocery checkout tabloids. It’s an undercurrent that flows through the popular media and makes so much news into bad news, because that’s what sells. After being an editorial journalist for years, I’m sure that most don’t even realize they’re doing it.
To me, that makes what we do as PR professionals more important than ever, balancing the scales of accuracy to make sure the public gets both sides so they can make an informed decision. In the Fourth Estate, we’re partners that ensure fairness, and it’s an important purpose that sometimes gets forgotten. A shift in perspective, and the dark side isn’t so dark after all.