Bad news: it doesn't have to be made worse
Whilst researching something the other day, I came across a post on a council website that you rarely see (the authority will remain nameless, although it may be obvious to any staff who read this).
In the news section was a headline that read something like: ‘What you didn’t read this week in the [local newspaper]’. It was linked to two items, venting frustration at treatment of the council by the local press. One post complained a response to a story was not used in full (despite being sent in before deadline). Another stated that a letter from an employee in response to an article had not been published.
I can understand – and have experienced as a journalist – the frustration councils feel when the media turns the heat on them. And there is definitely a role for using your website to engage a wide range of people and different media, particularly in a fast moving crisis. But there is rarely (if ever) cause for airing your frustration with a local paper to all who visit your website. Here are three reasons why.
1. It’s out of proportion: placing the article on a website highlights the issue to a whole new audience, many of whom will not have read the original story in the paper. If they read the web post, they could well be reading the paper next. That can not be a desirable outcome for any press officer who is striving to protect their employer’s reputation.
2. It gives the story ‘legs’: tempting as it is to ‘come down on them’, this is not a fight a council will come out of well. By not addressing the story directly with the paper, there is a risk that the damage will be prolonged, by raising more interest in it and further antagonising the media.
3. It won’t fix the relationship: many newspapers have a policy of offering a right of reply, but how they do that is up to them. They do not have to print a statement in full, and most newspapers openly state that it is at the editor’s discretion whether letters are published or not. Publicly complaining about this on a website because ‘it’s the only way to get a fair hearing’ makes the likelihood of being treated fairly even less likely in the future.
It’s easier said than done, especially if numerous attempts to get a fair hearing have fallen on deaf ears. So what could councils do? Some options are below.
1. It’s better to respond proportionately and factually, either through the letters pages or by contacting the newsdesk or reporter who has written the offending article.
2. Focus comms efforts on staff, councillors and those who may have read the paper, not those who have not (and will therefore know nothing about the issue). It’s better to ensure they know the corporate position on a damaging issue, so that they are armed with the facts.
3. If a complaint is necessary, write to the editor and point out why the story has not been fair (how to do this is probably another blog post). This will need to be done if the complaint is to be taken further at a later date. If this fails, there is always the PCC (be prepared to wait), where a retraction and apology can be sought.
4. Finally, there is always the courts if a story is especially unfair and damaging. Most councils will avoid this because of the costs.
They should beware the cost to their reputation of ‘going public’ with their battles too.