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Guerrilla media: how corporate spokespeople need to prepare for interviews in a new era of journalism

Blog post   •   Feb 21, 2016 11:22 SGT

I find an interesting parallel between the current states of warfare and of journalism. Warfare is no longer purely a matter of two nations fighting. Individuals with an axe to grind – "non-state actors" in the current parlance – are a much more insidious threat. "Lone wolves" are much harder to fight because they appear from nowhere, they act out of ideology and can't be reasoned with, and they are not responsible to anyone, least of all a large organisation like a government.

Similarly, we now have guerrilla media. We know that the internet has turned everyone into a journalist or, armed with a smart phone, a television producer. And anyone with a sizeable Facebook, Twitter or YouTube following can make or break reputations. But I have not seen much debate on the implications this has for corporate spokespeople.

Politicians, governments, multinational and publicly-listed companies spend considerable time, effort and money on coaching their senior executives to be ready to face the media. But one area that has received too little attention is how to deal with guerrilla journalists; the one-person media organisation with a social media account and an internet connection. In some ways they are like terrorists: driven by ideology, they write what they feel like. They pursue whatever agenda they want. They come out of nowhere, frequently with little, if any, journalistic training. They are accountable to no one and they refuse to be bound by any unwritten rules of engagement. They don't pull any punches. Their questions are direct, bordering on rude. And the spokesperson's public relations advisors have no one to raise concerns with other than the journalist him/herself.

As a journalist, these developments excite me. For too long, spontaneity in the news gathering process has been stage managed away in press conferences and photo ops. Electronic journalism might have made gathering news easier, but it has weakened our profession because journalists no longer develop skills to, say, persuade reluctant sources to provide information, or to see the situation for themselves on the ground. It's no wonder readers and viewers have turned away from the traditional media when all they seem to do is re-write press releases. It is clearly much more interesting to watch a brilliant, well-researched, expert, self-motivated journalist ask the hard questions that need to be asked, and not taking no for an answer.

But as a media coach, I fear for where all of this is heading. Frequently the guerrilla journalist is neither well-researched nor expert, and they are far from brilliant. They might have a blog with lots of followers, but they don't actually know much about the subject matter. Or they represent only one side of the argument which suits their particular viewpoint or ideology. Worse, with professional journalists at media companies increasingly relying on Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook for their news gathering, these guerrilla journalists have the ear of the traditional media, bestowing legitimacy on them.

Virtually every week I hear examples of how this plays out in practise: Quarterly earnings briefings by listed companies attended more frequently by bloggers than financial analysts and traditional media. They ask ill-informed questions at press conferences and draw ambiguous or plain wrong conclusions in their blog posts. I hear of MNCs confronted by bloggers who have previously received payment from their competitors to take a one-sided view in their posts. I see statesmen who get entangled in inane debates about irrelevant topics.

For corporate spokespeople these guerrilla journalists represent a new threat. No longer do they head into interviews knowing that the reporter will at least have read the press release. There is little effort to explore complicated issues and understand nuance when all the guerrilla journalist wants is a quick win and a scalp to show off to his followers. And there is no recourse to an editor if the resultant story turns out to be half-baked or wrong. Worse, if the guerrilla reporter brings a camera or records the interview on their smart phone, the resulting video is often of very poor audio and video, not to mention editorial quality.

Spokespeople find themselves having to educate these guerrilla journalists on the fly. They can't assume that they know much about the topic. They have to be far more alert to preconceptions or misconceptions embedded in questions. And they have to play co-producer to ensure whatever is recorded on video meets at least basic production standards.

Just as terrorism has forced us all to be alert to new threats from unexpected sources, so too corporate spokespeople must move beyond traditional media training and prepare to go into battle in an age of guerrilla media.

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