Covid 19 and need for factual news|K2 Communications

COVID-19-the virus that brought back the era of factual news

The audiences across the country and demographics have tuned out due to sheer exhaustion. Here’s how a journalist turned PR pro looks at the journey for media coverage and how Covid-19 has brought the need for factual news in India to the forefront.

This is my 3rd year as a media and public relations strategist, offering my expertise to several brands including healthcare brands. Neither in my present nor in my previous journalist Avatar, I was testimony to a world that’s been turned over on its axis. The abnormality has only generated a revived appetite – a ravenous urge to feed on facts.

 

When I started as a journalist in 1997, we barely had internet, and smartphones were a distant dream. News and fact-based reporting were deeply valued across the country, and Twitterati didn’t even exist. Our world expanded beyond the mandatory 280 characters, and we were able to fit in our thoughts and opinions in a more elaborate, expressive manner.

 

My Views on News

It gave me immense pride to work in the news business. I was chasing real stories that mattered. It was when I decided to shift my career from news to public relations, the lines of journalism and marketing began to blur. I couldn’t ignore the mushrooming media platforms popping up around me, each having a different way of communicating to its audience. The content suddenly became king, but also a pauper since it had to be stretched, pulled, hashed, and hashtagged to make its presence felt in the feeding frenzy.

 

To add to my confoundment, the digital age and the “clickbait” side of business suddenly started taking priority over authentic, factual information. Graphics and videos started replacing words and editorialized programming took precedence over hard news. In the era of extensive graphic consumption, people can now see what they want to see, customized, and packaged to align with their individual personal values and beliefs.

 

Fast forward to 2020, and Covid-19 suddenly revamped the media landscape.

 

People sat up and started looking for the most relevant, accurate, and current information to protect themselves and their families. Be it the fear factor or fatigue, audiences no longer want the noise, they have again begun to prefer science over sensationalism, facts over fiction.

From the healthcare segment perspective, never before has healthcare communications and PR been so important. The humane sides of stories of real people, from corona warriors, frontline workers to the average Indian, the stories have made a comeback.

 

Also see: Corporate Communications Guidebook for navigating Coronavirus Crisis

The recent episode of Ayurveda major, Patanjali is a case in point where we are truly experiencing not just an unprecedented awareness and hunger for truth, the government has also been extremely quick in responding and allaying any kind of fears related to misinformation. The brand had to backtrack not just its claims, but it will also need to rethink on building its reputation and authenticity for its future product launches and campaigns.

 

The revitalized need for creating a conducive news environment has been augmented by the deluge and speed of information about the virus. It was overwhelming and confusing to the extent that newsrooms have an added burden of getting it right the first time, to avoid classic foot-in-mouth situations later.

 

So, how do I see it all unfolding for healthcare public relations? In my opinion, it means that if healthcare organizations are looking to continue being a trusted resource, our responsibility is to help them get it right to disseminate information to the press. We should stick with medical expertise, authentic and corroborated data, and patient stories. The bottom line is to maintain the honesty and integrity of all the information going out of our desks while ensuring that we can meet the basic tenets of “old school” journalism. Healthcare pitches need to be humble, gentle with as little propaganda as possible, and should resonate with the public emotions.

 

As a journalist turned PR professional, the past three months have been our moment to rise to the occasion and to help the real healthcare heroes shine. Never before have I seen such a wonderful synergy between newsrooms and newsmakers. The theme – to provide correct information at all possible costs has been valued and respected across the stakeholders. The partnership between healthcare organizations, PR teams, and news and media channels has been heartening and satisfying.

 

This being said, I feel that we may have reached the peak of the coronavirus coverage curve. Unlocking has ensured that COVID-19 fatigue is blatantly visible in news coverage. The time has come for all of us to respond to the call of returning to normal life as we knew it in 2019. The demand for entertaining, lighter, feel-good stories is rising, giving a break from the data induced dark and gloomy news.

 

Limited Attention Spans and the New Normal

If I could take one silver lining from the past few months it would be the return of my first love – “journalism”. This phase has also shaken me and reminded several of my peers to stick to our mission as a healthcare PR content strategists. We cannot deviate from the larger picture and must give the “normal” a fair chance to return in the era of limited attention spans. Across the channel of communication, from the organizations to PR companies and news and media companies, we have all happily agreed to slow down, cut through the noise, seek the truth, and stick to stories that truly matter!

 

This hunger for authentic and factual news is a good sign as it enables PR professionals and journalists to stick to accuracy in the context of fake news that has gripped the vast social media including the WhatsApp messaging service. Though fake news is rampant, there are also quick rebuttals of erroneous data and information. This is absolutely essential in the context of a blurred distinction between real news and fake news. There are journalists who have taken the responsibility upon themselves as ‘fact-checkers’ and built agencies and organizations to curb fake news on the social media and web. In print, unlike social media, as there is limited space to carry news and information, there is a natural tendency to carry only news that matters and news that is truthful. While web and social media have taken over news disengagement, it would be prudent to still believe in the old values of Print Media, which is seen as the source of trust on public matters, while the fact-checking on social media goes on. This combination of trust of the old world and the fact-checking of the new world will go a long way in building a new service that is authentic.

 

 

What’s a Journo doing in a PR agency?

What’s a Journo doing in a PR agency?

My experience as a journalist in a PR agency has been interesting. While I have learned many things about PR, there are a few things that the PR person can imbibe from a journalist. The central and most important concern for a journalist is the critical, questioning role that he or she plays, something broadly missing in a PR set up.

A journalist questions many “given and established truths”, while a PR person has to present a positive picture of an issue at hand. There is a fundamental difference between the journalist and PR person when it comes to a story – a journalist asks scores of questions of an issue and might not easily accept a standard position, while a PR person presents “neutral” or “positive” facts. The PR person describes the “critical questioning” as a “negative mindset” and the resultant story as a “negative story”, while the PR person would produce positive aspects of a given story or truth and handover a “positive story”.

This I will describe as the pivotal difference between journalism and PR – “critical-negative” versus “uncritical-positive”. This difference produces two very different versions of the same story – while the journalist will be described as a professional who cannot see the good side of things in society, the PR person will be described as a one-sided professional who cannot see the critical side of things.

In both cases though, the overall picture of a story may be missing. A broad concoction and mix of the two is perhaps the truthful and complete version of the story. Both journalists and PR persons will have to be humble to accept both vantage points for a good story to be out in public. I remember an academic who described negative views as news and positive views as Corporate Public relations. Bridging the one-sidedness on both sides is a challenge to both a journalist and a PR person. A journalist can play an advisory role in a PR agency and guide the PR craft to draft stories that will in some way balance the two perspectives – the critical and the positive.

An issue that would cause some unease in the relationship between journalists and PR persons is ghost-writing. Here again, a journo can play a crucial role. Typically, I find that authored articles or quotes for an industry story or even press releases written in advance of an event on behalf of clients is again in a positive mode.

What comes from a CEO’s desk cannot have critical elements. The authored article is written by the PR person on behalf of the client and only facts that reflect the client’s interest. A journalist on the other hand, if he or she is especially a columnist, can reflect both the critical and positive aspects to a column or an article. An authored article cannot do this. A Journo would once again ask many questions of the article or the quote composed, and bring a holistic touch to it.

The PR person is shackled by the client, while a journalist is not. This is not the personal mistake of a PR person, the nature of the PR industry itself is such. The media is free to question, while the PR set-up is an unfree microcosm of the client. There would naturally be a conflict of interest if the PR agency were to project anything else other than what a client wants.

You may ask what a journo then is doing in a PR place?

I would answer the same by saying that a journo can bring a more complete view of the work of a PR person. This is possible. In my experience, I have been able to question clients whenever we have had meetings and interviews with them prior to the preparation of an authored article or press release. I have asked questions of the client exactly like I would when I was a journo. I have asked questions that may also be uncomfortable for the client. The client would then tumble out with facts that would otherwise not have come out, thus lending a more comprehensive touch to the interview. All-roundedness is something that a journo can bring to the PR’s table. The resultant product would then be closer to a 360-degree view.

In the course of these interviews, I have met clients who can pound you with their attitude and those who are soft and polite. I happened to meet a real estate client from Mumbai, who interacted with us in a manner as though we didn’t even know a bit of what they were talking. They taunted us and pressured us with their “Mumbai attitude”, with not a care for decency and even made faces with some peculiar and crude eye expressions, dismissing us entirely.

When I and my colleagues started asking fundamental questions of their work and projects, they tended to either be defensive or even more aggressive. What I gathered from this experience was that if you are well informed and have knowledge about the subject, you can turn things around and even put them off. Towards the middle of the interview, I realised that nothing of their project had commenced in Bangalore nor did they have adequate basic facts about their own project. I came away with a lesson – if you are fairly knowledgeable and have a journalist sense in you, you can take on anybody. Coming from a journo background, you tend not to be defensive, you tend to be on the offensive. The clients had to withdraw from their offensive once it became clear that they did not have much to reveal while having loads of attitude to share.

Going gaga over the client and praising them sky-high would not be fair. A journalist would ground this kind of reporting by frontalising facts rather than praise. Whenever I have come across undue positive reports, I have made it a point to factualise the report more and remove the unnecessary adulation. This comes from the journalistic instinct that one carries into PR. This kind of difference or tussle is welcome at K2, which has given me the freedom to exercise my opinion freely and fairly. When you filter a report full of adjectives with facts, a journalist tends to project a more objective view of the issue or story at hand. This would be fair to the reader or viewer. When clients have been told of the need to be fair, there have been instances when they too have been nice to us and have acceded to such a stand.

I joined PR to see the other side of journalism – to understand the backend of journalism. I had apprehensions about whether I could survive as a journalist, but allaying all the fears, K2 has given me space to openly question many issues and offer a contrarian view to things. A journalist’s journey in PR is not wasted. You learn the art of balancing the critical (negative) and the uncritical (positive) and come away in the end with your convictions intact.

The author’s views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the views of the associated organisation.

About the author:

Prashanth – He brings on-board his enriched journalistic perspective to K2 communications. Armed with a Degree in Sociology and a Masters in Philosophy Research from the University of Hyderabad, where his thesis was on Human Rights, his vast experience in the field of writing, reporting and editing in print media is highly valued and appreciated by our clients.

Framing- a double-edged sword in PR content strategizing?

A study by Pratt, Ha, and Pratt (2002) of the representation of diseases in the media in Africa showed that the media often used negative and derogatory descriptions when reporting on diseases such as HIV/AIDS. In contrast, they used no negative terms or examples and no derogatory language in reporting on diseases such as tuberculosis. As a consequence of the way in which the media framed the topic in a negative light, it is likely that people with HIV/AIDS were seen in a negative way by people who heard or read the reports. Tuberculosis patients were more likely to have received sympathy from those same people.

We have all seen examples of how framing works – most recently, the killing of a man-eating tigress which hurtled the government-appointed father-son hunter duo in an unwarranted media frenzy. The animal rescue groups applied framing, and the two reputed rescuers and experts unknowingly slid down in public perception as villains.

Or how certain advertisements almost always end up showing a woman as a doctor wearing a white coat and talking about how a product is safe for her own children, is a classic example of how framing works as people can relate to these images and their perception changes to suit the marketer’s goal. (No doctor would lie when it comes to her own children!)

The power of language as a tool in effective communication has long been prized in effective PR. Whether it is rhetoric, argument, or persuasion, words have always helped shape mindsets. When it comes to communicating the value of a brand or a company’s image, an excellent copy helps create the right picture.

OR so we thought.

New developments in cognitive science show that the human brain may not be as receptive to information as we have always thought. In his noted book ” Don’t Think of an Elephant,” noted neuroscientist George Lakoff, explains that human brains create embedded neural structures, which he calls “frames” which are nothing but neurons that trigger our thoughts as responses to stimuli. These “frames” are mainly a person’s worldview, their perception of reality.

The implication of all this is that “IDEAS are of primary importance, and humans often respond to language that lines up with their preconceived principles.”

As per Lakoff, communication is not necessarily about trying to sway someone over to “your side” of viewpoint or coerce them to get convinced of your message. The key, as per Lakoff, to effective communication is to identify the framed perspective of whomever your target customer is, what kinds of values that frame leads those people to use when they process the information.

How does PR applies framing?

Framing manifests in thought or interpersonal communication. Depending on the audience and what kind of information is being presented, framing in communication can be positive as well as negative.

Press-releases- In mass-media, a frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. Sometimes framing is used in the form of presenting facts in such a way that implicates a problem that is in need of a solution. In communications, framing defines how news media coverage shapes mass opinion.

Events- While sharing information about an event, for example, the understanding often depends on the frame referred to. But you cannot just apply a “frame” to an event. Every individual would try to project to the world the interpretive frames that allowed them to make sense of the event. Therefore, to show an event in the “light” that you wish the target audience to see or ignore and move on, you may need to work on their frames and try and align it so they can look at your perspective.

Framing Techniques in PR-An Example

PR agencies are often seen encouraging some stories and interpretations while discouraging the others.  This is not to say that most PR is about lying or consciously distorting the truth. More so, that by highlighting particular stories, using specific sources from a particular news angle, public relations agencies are constructing reality through a selective process. What is presented is often influenced by work practices, resource constraints, and sensitivity of the matter to shareholders as well as management.

When an event is explained and understood by the comparison of the frame with other frames, gradually a frameshift happens. Framing is like a mental shortcut and is often the exact opposite to the rational choice theory in psychology.

 

A classic example of framing is the pollution- look at how this issue has been framed:

Pollution as a law and order frame- Most vehicle owners are callous about going for regular PUC (pollution under control) checks. The present infrastructure does not support so many vehicles during peak hours leading to traffic snarls. The need for public transport has not been answered efficiently. The journalist on this beat could involve social, political and government and even police representatives for opinions, sound bites, and more.

Pollution as a health issue- The keyframing is how the increasing pollution is affecting the health of commuters or causing health concerns in broader society. A pulmonologist may be interviewed to discuss the health issues and courses of treatment; health minister might be asked to comment on the subject and ways and measures by the government to tackle them.

Pollution as a social problem- Here, pollution may be framed as a social issue connected with class, and dysfunctional society. How households now have 3 or more cars, sometimes one vehicle per family member – pointing towards the substantial rich-poor divide. How the low diesel prices have affected the sale of diesel cars in the past and how these have contributed more to the pollution. Car manufacturers, customers, and even economists and town planners could be brought in to influence public perception and create the right framing.

 

Pollution in a positive light- this is a less common frame, but an unconventional way to project something that is perceived as extremely dangerous and harmful by the public in a different frame. How the pollution motivated people to burst fewer firecrackers on Deepavali, or how the car rental aggregators came up with ideas like car-pooling or sharing the cabs. The ‘harm reduction’ efforts by the corporate could be emphasized here.

 

 

Key lessons for the PR industry:

Framing is strongly impacted by the language that is used to describe given events or critical features of a given story. Language serves as the cognitive framework through which we understand and make sense of the world around us, and apply the same to make sense of the news about a given event or a story.

Using the correct language is the key- a headline, in a reputed national daily about how a plane, flown by an Indian pilot crashed soon after takeoff raised a considerable furor in social media as well as other platforms. Every word could have huge implications in shaping public perceptions, inciting stereotypes, and validating or marginalizing a particular character of the story.

Corporate media has to be more vigilant- In a corporate media environment; consumers of news cannot rely solely on the packaging of news stories. Considering the state of the media landscape today, PR firms should be prepared to ask probing questions such as what are the reasons behind how a story is being packaged or presented and rule out hidden or disguised biases and even stereotypes.

Staying away from negative framing- Putting a negative spin on the news because otherwise, it wouldn’t be newsworthy is a dangerous way of applying PR principles. If PR agencies resort to “If it bleeds, it reads” public perception may be influenced at initial stages, but sooner than later, people would see through the negative frame and would shun the news and beliefs altogether.

Typology of Seven Models of Framing Applicable to Public Relations*

 

What is framed    Description
Situations Relationships between individuals in situations found in everyday living and literature. Framing of situations provides a structure for examining communication. Applies to discourse analysis, negotiation, and other interactions.
Attributes Characteristics of objects and people are accentuated, whereas others are ignored, thus biasing the processing of information in terms of focal attributes.
Choices Posing alternative decisions in either negative (loss) or positive (gain) terms can bias choices in situations involving uncertainty. Prospect theory suggests people will take greater risks to avoid losses than to obtain

gains.

Actions In persuasive contexts, the probability that a person will act to attain the desired goal is influenced by whether alternatives are stated in positive or negative terms.
Issues Social problems and disputes can be explained in alternative terms by different parties who vie for their preferred definition a problem or situation to prevail
Responsibility Individuals tend to attribute the cause of events to either internal or external factors, based on levels of stability and control. People portray their role in events consistent with their self-image in ways that maximize benefits and minimize culpability. People attribute causes to personal actions rather than systemic problems in society.
News Media reports use familiar, culturally resonating themes to relay information about events. Sources vie for their preferred framing to be featured through frame enterprise and frame sponsorship.

Adapted from Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations by Kirk Hallahan, Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, Colorado State University  JOURNAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH, 11(3), 205–242 Copyright © 1999, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Framing is an effective strategy that helps public relations agencies determine where the audience puts its attention. The key to reaching others is not a great press copy or an amazing advertisement- but knowing the language that speaks to their frame, and using those exact same words to activate their frame and then allow them to see the issue from your perspective.

About the author:

Shiv Shankar – He is the Executive Director & Founder of K2 Communications. Under his astute leadership, K2 Communications has developed into a frontrunner among PR agencies that incessantly delivers excellent regional and national PR support to clients belonging to various sectors including government, IT, education, consumer, and healthcare.