Why we care more about bad news… and how spokespeople can cut through
By Alex Newlove, Senior Account Manager
It is a common complaint that journalists tend to focus on the ‘bad’ stories that make us despair about the state of the world. Our clients sometimes worry that journalists’ propensity for covering conflict and mishap will lead to quotes being taken out of context and placed in an overwhelmingly negative story.
Who else subscribes to a news service where the refrain below-the-line is often “I will be cancelling my subscription to this alarmist newspaper, I expected better”?
The insinuation behind these complaints is that journalists go out of their way to irritate and alarm us, just for fun. Sometimes, the follow-up statement from commenters will be something like, “why can’t you report on some good news for a change?”.
The answer to this question is clear: editors have better information than ever about what people are reading, given that the vast majority of news is now clicked on, as opposed to leafed through. I would argue that this makes us all culpable for the quality and tone of the news agenda. You clicked on one too many articles about Kim Kardashian’s bum, and you are now living in the mean and superficial world which you helped to mould. Social media has further fueled an environment that rewards only the most extreme, black-and-white opinions.
But while I have just implied that we all have a degree of responsibility for the negative news cycle, we are also born with brains that fire up for drama and disaster; merely flicker for charming stories with a happy ending; and barely register accounts of where things have gone well or adhered to the status quo – in fact this latter group is barely considered news at all.
Excuse me while my undergraduate psychology course rears its ugly head, but this penchant for bad news makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The ‘negativity bias’ meant our ancestors were vastly more likely to put their attention towards what could be a snake in the grass, over admiring a glorious blue sky. Ignoring potential bad news (the approaching snake) was vastly riskier than not focusing on neutral or good news. Similar mechanisms are at work when we find it easier to recall insults than compliments, and why you remember exactly what you were doing when you heard a plane had crashed into the twin towers. Your brain registered the perceived shocking threat and helpfully filed the ‘lesson’ for later.
This negativity bias poses a challenge for PR people. Our clients often come to us desperately excited about a new project their team has been working energetically on for many months. We are sometimes in the unenviable position of telling them “sorry, no-one cares”. This will be translated to something along the lines of “What an exciting initiative! Unfortunately, due to the busy news agenda we cannot imagine this will get much traction with the media at this time”.
So how can firms capitalise on a grim news agenda, without coming across as overly pessimistic, or getting drawn into a slanging match with competitors?
Contrarian points of view
Restating the status quo does not get you quoted. The journalist wants colour and opinion – what is your or your company’s attitude towards a topic? Can you critique a prevailing idea or theory, or even your own industry, before covering what your firm is doing to change it? (We recommend against criticising specific competitors.)
Use their angle to your advantage
Ask the journalist if they already have an angle in mind. If you feel it is inaccurate or overly-negative, this gives you a chance to come up with a more positive counter-narrative and will help guide your responses throughout the conversation.
Move the story on
The journalist is always trying to write the next chapter on a given topic, so there is little point in extensively rehashing old ground. Give them something fresh to go on and explain how an issue is moving on. “Now the market is shifting, and our clients have started asking us about Y. This means…”
Be fearless: say what you think
A big frustration for journalists is the extent to which senior people in well-paid positions are afraid to venture an opinion, even where it correlates to their company’s messaging. The world is gasping for thoughtful, frank, discussion. Being passionate and showing personality is good.
Aspectus can help your company navigate a turbulent news agenda. Contact us.