Wednesday, 6 April 2005

Bringing you the bad news before it happens

What grabs your attention when you pick up a paper? Apart from regular features like the excellent columns in The Journal, I tend to turn first to reports of natural disasters and man-made accidents, followed by the obituary pages.

I’m drawn to this bad news not because I am especially ghoulish or morbid, but because these days it is about the only thing that isn’t extensively reported before it happens.

As of last weekend, I’m not even sure this still applies to obituaries. My national ‘quality’ daily provided me with a pull-out-‘n’-keep tribute to the Pope on Saturday, even though he hadn’t actually died by then. Perhaps we can look forward to Jim Naughtie on Today regularly kicking off with ‘The death will be announced later today of …’

The consequences of journalism becoming a branch of clairvoyancy strike me as far from positive.

We’ve already heard every conceivable General Election argument at least twice (this is what the party is going to say and, less prominently the next day, this is what it said). And that’s before the campaign officially started.

No wonder people are bored with politics. And no wonder we seize with such joy on those individuals who wander off script, like the glorious Howard Flight. Allowing the headline writers to revel in ‘More bad news for the Tories’ – bad news being what we mainly like to write about and read.

To give an example from my own professional life, last month my long-standing client Greggs announced typically excellent results, which were fully covered in The Journal – but down-played or totally ignored by most of the national newspapers.

Compare and contrast that with the acres of newsprint consumed in summer 2003, when Greggs dared to suggest that a 100 degree heatwave wasn’t exactly ideal for selling pasties.

Quite unbelievable to the average writer on the City pages, of course, where the received wisdom is that ‘only bad retailers blame the weather’. Someone even drew up a league table of unbelievable corporate excuses, ranging from the freezing of cockle beds in the North Sea to the adverse effects of Diana’s death on demand for upholstered furniture.

It has to be said that an alarmingly high percentage of these issued from my pen and all had one other thing in common. The companies concerned believed them to be genuine explanations of their difficulties.

I’ve been wondering who’s to blame for the focus on bad news, and the sneering at attempts to explain it away. Sadly, I’ve concluded that it’s all the fault of people like me – the spinners, whether political or financial, who relentlessly try to put their client’s best foot forward and avoid mentioning the things that inevitably go wrong.

Who can blame journalists and readers from seizing on the few things outside their control?

Oh dear. How on earth am I going to put a positive spin on that?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant and registered pessimist.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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