Just lately, more than a few people have been complaining about journalists just recently.
It’s not critical stories that truly bother people, it’s not giving a fair crack of the whip.
As a former journalist, I get the Press needs to hold the organisation to account.
As a former press officer, I also get that that on occasion the journalist or news organisation needs to be held to account, too.
Taditional media. No longer the only show in town but as the Edelman Trust Barometer shows, in the UK 61 per cent trust traditional media.
Every generation blames declining editorial standards. But as news rooms have been hollowed out old heads have gone. There’s also less time to check copy and pressure to get the story online.
If the content is in accurate complain about it.
Golde rule: get your facts straight first
One day when I worked in local government, the door flew open. An angry social worker demanded we I declare war on the local newspaper for the damning front page she was shaking at me.
“Calm down,” I said. “Let’s go through it line by line.”
Of the 14 paragraphs, all but one was accurate. It quoted her in a report she’d written. The sum of money was at issue. So, I picked-up the phone and spoke to the journalists about the inaccuracy.
Golden rule: Get your facts straight first. What’s the problem? If the piece is inaccurate, you’ve got a case. If you’ve not been given a fair say, too.
Yes, you complained once and all you got was three lousy lines on page 17. What’s the point? You’re firing a shot across the bows. You don’t see is the pain stripping inquisition that may have led to those three lines. When I was a reporter, I made mistakes just like anyone else. I sure as hell I didn’t enjoy the process of explaining myself. At best, it’s time consuming. At worst, it can be pretty unpleasant.
Stage 1: the off-line conversation with the journalist direct
Sometimes, the offending headline isn’t the fault of the journalist themselves. It’s the sub-editor where they still exist. Talk to the journalist direct over the phone to air your grievance. Chances are most things can be sorted this way. But if the issue is particularly bad, just go straight to stage two.
Stage 2: the on-line conversation with the newspaper direct
You can talk to your residents directly to set the record straight. So, why wouldn’t you?
The BBC Press Office have got really good at this. Annoyed at reporting they want to challenge they’ve taken to Twitter. Be straight. Be factual.
A story that’s crass beyond belief… pic.twitter.com/nltTCx1YK6
— BBC Press Office (@bbcpress) August 24, 2017
Top tip: some in the organisation will fear this is just having a row and hey, we’re above that. So, do a bit of homework first. Have a word with the people who know policy backwards. In a council, this is usually constitutional services. Ask them for chapter and verse of policies on transparency and accuracy. Frame your conversations in the light of these policies. You are not having a row. You are making sure council policy is carried out by being transparent about the issue, is all.
Stage 3: the off-line complaint to the news organisation
Now, this is where your homework comes into play. Twenty minutes going through documents line-by-line could save you hours and days and weeks.
This is the important part. You are looking at what holds the journalist to account.
You don’t necessary have to complain to the regulator direct. But you can cite where the breaches of the regulator’s code are then complain editor or news editor above the reporter’s head. This makes the difference between the unstructured shouting and the constructive argument.
There’s plenty to choose from.
The IPSO editor’s code of conduct
There is a big debate over press regulation. That’s for some other time. The majority of newspapers opt to be regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation or IPSO. There are 14 areas of the Editor’s Code of Conduct that you can complain under with the first – accuracy – likely to feature prominently.
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
There was a handy webpage with a list of organisations governed by IPSO. That’s now got a 404 so you’ll have to make use of the old school contact page to check if the body is regulated.
The IMPRESS code of conduct
If the organisation you want to complain about are regulated by the official regulator IMPRESS the code can be found here. They’ve recently regulated their 1,000th organisation with a fair number of blogs and websites on the list.
The National Union of Journalists code of conduct
The NUJ – disclaimer, I’m a member – has 12 points in its code of conduct. If the journalist is breaching them, cite them. It doesn’t matter they are not members it is a nationally recognised code of behaviour for the journalist themselves.
The news organisation themselves’ own code
The news organisation themselves often pride themselves in upholding the highest standards. That’s great. Hold them to them. For example, Reach, the new name for Trinity Mirrior, has a complaints policy. The BBC has editorial guidelines. If you are complaining about a BBC reporter know what the guidelines so you can show whey they have been broken. Use them.
Stage 4: the formal complaint
If sticking locally doesn’t work, then do put the complaint in writing to the right regulator.
In a fast moving news cycle, you’ll need to act fast, accurately and fairly. If you don’t, who in your organisation will?
Picture credit: Ryan Adams / Homedust.com
It can be truly great working with politicians. It can also be tricky. You can be pressured to help one side or the other. But if you do you’ll be in the cross-hairs of rival politicians. Here’s a simple guide to avoid pitfalls. Not just during Purdah but all year round.
Here’s a scenario for you. You pick up the phone to an important politician who is up for election.
They’re asking about that picture you took of them at the launch of the new play equipment.
Can you just send it across?
You’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the image will go into her campaign leaflet. So you ask what the picture will be used for.
Of course, if it is for a leaflet you don’t send it. It was taken using public resources so shouldn’t be used for political campaigning. But how do you say ‘no’ constructively?
Take it from me, unless you have chapter and verse in front of you that conversation is going to be a little bit tricky. At best, you are going to look a bit evasive and unhelpful. At worst, you are going to look uninformed and when the politician complains you may have more pressure put on you to do the wrong thing.
Of course, in an ideal world, every elected member knows what they can and can’t expect you do and wouldn’t dream of leaning on you to bend the rules. But, of course, we aren’t in an ideal world.
In my experience, every authority has at least one elected member who will try and push the rules. Especially with junior members of staff. And every authority has at least one elected member who will spot what you’ve done and attempt to nail you to the floor. Comms teams can often be accused of being ‘political mouthpieces.’ Mainly by people who don’t understand the role they do. My advice is don’t let them. But to do that successfully you’ll need to know very, very clearly what you can and can’t do.
It’s not just councils, either. This covers partners, police, national parks and very often fire services too.
Why three minutes and three hours?
It’ll take you three minutes to read this post. It’ll then take you three hours to do the groundwork you’ll need to do. Put it off until the merde hits the fan and it could be too late. Do you and your team a favour and put the work in ahead of time. It’ll be one of the best things you ever do.
What do you need to do? You need to read through several key documents. You need to cut and paste the passages that govern what you can and can’t do for elected members. Don’t paraphrase. It’s far more effective to read back the page, paragraph and chapter and verse. Make sure all your team know it, have a copy and have access to it.
Read your media protocols
Every communications unit needs a media and publicity protocols document. This sets out what you’ll do for elected members. It also sets out when and where the team get involved. Normally, this will be agreed between you, the chief executive and Leader. It can change and be updated two or three times a year. It’s an important document but not the best one in your armoury.
The Council DCLG Code
The Department for Communities and Local Government has issued eight pages of guidance on what councils should and shouldn’t do. In England, the guidance from 2011 can be found right here. You may want to cite one of the key principles of the guidance that it is even-handed, for example. For Scotland and Wales the guidance dates back amazingly to 1988. You can find it here.
If you work in a local government comms team you should know your guidance backwards. It’ll also give you some good ground rules on what you can and can’t do.
Your authority’s constitution
It’s a funny thing but your constitution has a power over politicians that is practically unmatched. Your protocols they can debate. The DCLG code they can decide to defy. The constitution? That’s a whole different thing. It’s the day-to-day rules they are governed by. You’ll find things in there about publicity, sure. You’ll also find things about the staff – elected member relationship and probably some safeguards against undue pressure too.
Professional codes of conduct
Back when I was looking through my council’s constitution there was explicit reference to professional codes. For comms people this can provide two helpful routes. Firstly, the National Union of Journalists. Their code applies to comms people just as much as reporters as they have comms members. The line: ‘Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair,’ is a particular favourite.
Secondly, you can also draw on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations code of conduct too.
The LGA have written some excellent Purdah guidance for 2016 which you can see here. We’ve also blogged some guidance on Purdah and social media and you can read that here. If you are central government, look out for Cabinet Office guidance that will be published ahead of elections.
In short, there’s some legwork involved here. Yes, I know you are busy. But this could save your skin in the long run.
Once you’ve pulled things together, publish it on your web pages and make it public. Let the leaders of each group know the contents on the internal guidance too so they can’t pretend to be in the dark.
Picture credit: Clemens v Vogelsang / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/iWUJBn