Lesson 2: Public Relations’ Media Scanning Role
As lesson 1 demonstrated, media play a powerful role in shaping the public agenda—determining those topics that are most important for public consumption. The ways in which those topics are presented can vary greatly, though, depending on the content chosen (and omitted), the specific terms used, the images and spokespersons reflected, and the overall tone. Again, reflective of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant—one story can be told in many different ways. No single story shows the complete picture.
As public relations professionals, then, we have a mandate to “see the whole elephant” – to understand the many different perspectives regarding our organization’s news, or news that might affect our organization. Doing so contributes to our environmental scanning responsibilities, and informs how we should respond in our role as our organization’s ethical conscience.Next Page: Environmental Scanning & the Ethical Conscience
Environmental Scanning & the Ethical Conscience
One of our core roles as professional public relations professionals is to serve as our organization’s environmental scanner. We must look beyond our organization’s boundaries to seek information about our organization, news that could possibly affect our organization, and issues that warrant our attention. As the parable goes, indeed we must “see the whole elephant” in order to identify and manage potential issues, issue which, if left unaddressed could affect the operation or reputation of an organization. Environmental scanning can happen in a variety of ways, through both formal and informal inquiry—by analyzing social media, looking at comments discussion boards, on-site observation, and of course evaluating news coverage. As Dyer (1996) explained,
“Monitoring the organizational environment, environmental scanning, is an important part of the public relations practitioner's job. Everyone knows that the contents of the media agenda have very significant implications for organizations…. But some of the greatest utility that the public relations practitioner can offer an organization is the ability to identify incremental changes in the content of the media agenda for issues with which the organization is concerned” (p. 148).
By scanning our environment to understand those issues and topics that could affect our organization, we are able to provide better ethical guidance in terms of next steps. Simply put, our environmental scanning role informs our role as an organization’s ethical conscience. Much like the legal team provides legal counsel, we must provide ethical counsel. And we cannot provide sound counsel unless we have a handle on public discourse and expectations. The roots of public relations’ “ethical conscience” can be traced to Ivy Lee’s 1906 Declaration of Principles, which argued that public relations professionals should serve as their organization’s journalist in residence; we must provide transparent, open, accurate information for our publics. The specific concept of an ethical conscience developed by the 1950s—evidenced by John Hill’s 1958 discussion of the “corporate conscience” (Bowen, 2008). As Bowen summarized, “the role of ethical conscience allows public relations practitioners to act in the best of interests of both their organizations and their publics. The well-being of both organizations and publics could be enhanced through public relations professionals performing the role of ethics counsel” (p. 290).
In practice, this mandate means thinking holistically for your organization—scanning our environment while thinking about all publics and stakeholders at all times. Acting ethically also means thinking long term—sometimes even sacrificing short-term gains in order to help build long-term quality relationship outcomes. As this lesson will explain, often it is our role to convince management that the latter is more important than the former. It requires thinking beyond the immediate business needs and legal parameters, and considering what your organization “should” do to help manage important relationships. And having a grasp on current conversations in the media inform this responsibility.
For example, in 2008 two major California-based corporations—Apple and Google—publicly announced donations ($100,000 and $140,000 respectively) to help in the campaign against Proposition 8, a bill before California voters proposing a ban on marriage for same-sex couples. In so doing, Apple released the statement, “Apple was among the first California companies to offer equal rights and benefits to our employees’ same-sex partners, and we strongly believe that a person’s fundamental rights — including the right to marry — should not be affected by their sexual orientation” (Kim, 2008). Similarly, one of Google’s co-founders Sergey Brin released a statement that read, “While we respect the strongly held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality. We hope that California voters will vote no on Proposition 8 — we should not eliminate anyone’s fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love” (Kopytoff, 2008). Certainly, neither company had any legal or significant business reason compelling them to make a donation. In fact, making a donation and strong public statement about such a political and divisive topic could have been seen as risky. The companies felt, however, that it was their ethical responsibility to do so. Thinking long term, they wanted to make a values statement to key internal and external stakeholders, in order to nurture those relationships. And they conveyed those values via mainstream media.
Analyzing the media therefore is central to our scanning role, and in turn central to providing ethical counsel to our organization. Moreover, as the first lesson demonstrated, in the process we cannot limit our understanding to one or two sources. Ethically, we have a responsibility to understand as many perspectives as possible—in this case as many media frames as possible—in order to craft the most effective, appropriate response that addresses the concerns and expectations of our publics.
In fact, often the first thing a public relations practitioner does on a daily basis is scan the news to identify not only coverage about our own organization, but also news about our peers, and any topics or issues that could affect (or potentially affect) our organization. And this media scanning process requires that we are able to determine how our news is being conveyed, which is where our media framing analyses are useful. We must look at the big picture (our macro analysis), evaluating dynamics such as article length, headline, images, and callouts. Then we must look at the details (our micro-level analysis), analyzing dynamics such as the specific language/terms being used, types of content chosen, spokespersons used, and overall tone.
Media Scanning in Practice
Think back to the example in the first lesson regarding the Josh Brown NFL domestic abuse case. We used that example originally to explore the difference between episodic and thematic media framing. Now, think about it from a public relations perspective. If you were working on the NFL’s PR team, you would be very interested in how media were covering the news itself. You would want to understand how the news was being conveyed and, in turn, how your organization (in this case, the NFL), was being portrayed. Is the news accurate? Did the NFL provide enough quality information, or do you need to provide additional comment? What context is being used to shape the story itself, and is there anything regarding that context that you need to address? Is there anything that warrants a comment or follow up with the media or public generally?
With those questions in mind, let’s quickly analyze the headlines for the Josh Brown articles. The first headline, from CBS News’ episodic article, reads, “NFL on defense amid new revelations about Josh Brown's wife abuse.” The second headline, from Washington Post’s thematic article, reads, “The Josh Brown affair shows that the NFL learned nothing from the Ray Rice case.” Now let’s add a headline from a third article not analyzed in lesson 1. This one, from Huffington Post, reads “The NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy Isn’t Working Because It Wasn’t Designed To—Josh Brown’s case is a reminder that the league’s updated policies were always about PR, not substantive action.”
Without even reading the articles themselves, as a member of the NFL’s PR team—who has just arrived at work and scanned the morning’s headlines—you have a few immediate takeaways. First, it seems we need to address the Josh Brown case more directly and make proactive statements regarding what the League is doing, and why. Second, we need to clearly state our player policies and outline the steps we are taking as a League beyond the specific Josh Brown case. After all, it seems at first glance the Huffington Post is explicitly framing league policy as a PR cover up. Are other news outlets doing the same? Finally, perhaps the biggest takeaway is the most important ethical consideration any public relations professional must remember when scanning and working with the media: today’s stories become tomorrow’s context. In other words, public relations is cumulative. What we do today provides the context for how media can frame our future news. And as the Washington Post headline indicates, the Ray Rice case from more than two years ago provides important context for today’s news. In an unrelated case, think about Volkswagen’s recent scandal regarding its use of an emissions “cheat tool.” No matter what amazing news the company has to tell for the foreseeable future, they should expect news media to provide the context of a company trying to recover from an emissions scandal. A news article reporting, for example, a donation of $500 million from Volkswagen to a humanitarian cause will include a paragraph reminding us about the emissions scandal.
Our Ethical Responsibility to Anticipate Context and Identify Issues
So, how do these takeaways translate into our day-to-day ethical responsibilities? By understanding the frames that are used to convey your organization’s news, you are able to help ensure that your organization ethically addresses public expectations and concerns. Accordingly, applying the principles of media framing analysis helps in two specific ways: anticipating the types of coverage we might receive, and identifying opportunities to address inappropriate coverage.
Anticipating Context: First, if we embrace the fact that today’s stories indeed become tomorrow’s context, we must learn to anticipate how that could (or should) influence our communication needs. A reporter who provides historical context is, after all, just doing her job. We should expect (and respect) their responsibility to do so. In the Josh Brown NFL example, then, you would be able to counsel management ahead of time that when the news breaks reporters most likely will evaluate if and how this event relates to past issues. You would anticipate that any past action, positive or negative, will be scrutinized and provided for public consumption. Accordingly, you would counsel management on if and how you would reference past issues while making a statement.
Of course, it might be difficult to bring ethical concerns to management’s attention. It might be an even bigger challenge convincing them to take an action or make a statement that might not put the organization in the best light. But in your role as the organization’s ethical conscience, and thinking about reputation over the long term, you must counsel the organization regarding the most-appropriate path. In the NFL case, management might not want to address the Ray Rice case, because it would bring additional negative attention to the organization. In your role anticipating the media coverage, however, you know that the media will bring it up anyway. Perhaps the league should therefore consider making a statement along the lines of, “We acknowledge that this is the not the first case of domestic abuse we’ve had to deal with as a League. And we admit we need to do better. We will. Here’s our plan.”
The ultimate goal is to let the public know that your organization is aware of an issue, acknowledges the context surrounding that issue, and is taking the needed steps to address that issue. Otherwise, as seen in the media coverage in this NFL case, there is a risk that the public might see you as out of touch and not fundamentally concerned with the things that matter to them—which influences the broader public perception of an organization’s values. After all, as one of the key Page Principles reminds us, we must “Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends upon it…. all business in a democratic society begins with public permission and exists by public approval” (Block, 2016). Moreover, in Arthur Page’s own words, “The fundamental way of getting [public approval] is to deserve it”
Our Ethical Responsibility to Anticipate Context and Identify Issues Continued
Identifying issues: Media scanning also helps identify inappropriate coverage. For example, is there a need to move the needle in terms of the tone? Are the terms being used to cover your organization accurate, or do they inappropriately position your organization? Are there false equivalencies in terms of spokespeople? In these cases, you also have an ethical responsibility to work with the media in order to more accurately convey your news. On one hand, your role is to make sure that the general public is informed. On the other hand, you have a responsibility to your internal and external stakeholders, who are primed to look for news coverage of your organization. Potential donors, investors, customers, employees, and business partners all are interested in reading about your organization’s news. So, it is important to ensure that the organization is being represented in a fair light.
Consequently, I have spoken with many directors of non-profits who consistently explain that one of their most important daily roles is to educate the media on their organization’s cause and services. For many of these organizations, misinformation can have serious consequences. One social advocacy organization provided a good example. They were in the midst of campaigning for a statewide bill expanding non-discrimination employment protections that had a good chance to become law. The major media outlet covering the campaign, however, reported the wrong bill number. As a result, thousands of people wrote and called their representative to vote for a different bill. The bill for which this organization was campaigning failed; legislators argued that they did not see or hear any public support for it, so they therefore did not vote for it.
Putting It All Together
Therefore, in performing our environmental scanning role—or more appropriately, our media-scanning role—it is crucial that public relations practitioners analyze news media to determine the most appropriate, ethical next steps, and then to counsel our management regarding those next steps. On one hand, it is the media’s responsibility to present our news in a way that best informs the public. We therefore must anticipate the ways our news might be reported, remembering that yesterday’s stories become today’s context. On the other hand, we must analyze media to ensure that we’re being reflected accurately, in a fair light. We have an ethical responsibility to scan the media, anticipate those frames, and identify gaps and opportunities to improve coverage. As mentioned in the first lesson, certainly media rarely set out to misrepresent an organization. But journalists have their own frames and varying degrees of experience with and knowledge of certain topics.
Understanding the principles of media framing help guide our media scanning role. First, we must search for news not only specific to our organizations or our peers, but also for news regarding topics and issues that could potentially affect our organization. Second, we must pull in various news sources covering that same topic and systematically analyze media content to identify how the news is being framed. Finally, working with the media and serving as an organization’s ethical conscience requires that we think long term. Indeed, today’s stories become tomorrow’s context. And as the principles of media framing emphasize, we must understand that context to be able to address important issues and manage key relationships.
Case Study: Samsung’s Next Steps
Background & Dilemma
Let’s take the wonderfully rich case of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7. As you probably heard, Samsung recalled all Galaxy Note 7 phones from North America because of widespread reports that the phones can become overheated and explode—a public relations nightmare. The company timed the release of the phone to directly compete with Apple’s release of the iPhone 7 and Google’s new Pixel phone. The company suddenly faced a huge financial loss, a major setback in the mobile phone market, and a damaged reputation globally. Imagine you are on Samsung’s North American public relations team. How, from a public relations perspective, do you move forward?
Course of Action
As part of your environmental scanning role, it is first important to see what, exactly, media are saying and what issues need to be addressed. So, before walking through the discussion below, first download the two news articles above and read through them as if you are a member of Samsung’s public relations team. Make any notes regarding what stands out as an opportunity or issue for your company’s PR. This will help you start to consider the following questions: What types of information are being highlighted for the public? And how does this news influence your response? Once you have completed your own analysis, continue to the bullets provided to see how your notes compare.
- The article leads with an estimate regarding potential financial loss, but the numbers are based on media and analyst estimates. The only comment from Samsung regarding an estimate is that it will be “a heartbreaking amount.” Would it be worth clarifying Samsung’s estimate, rather than have media guess?
- The phone tested had been well reviewed. So what questions might the public have as a result?
- In an example of “today’s stories become tomorrow’s context,” the article explains that the phone, “will now be forever linked with backfiring batteries instead” and the recall, “seems certain to do long-term reputational damage.”
Now take a look at article #2, written approximately one week later. This article demonstrates that in complex cases such as this one, the situation evolves over time; the story remains in the spotlight. Consequently, the public is able to observe the company’s actions (and inactions). So what are the PR-specific implications from this article?
- The article leads with the story of a 6-year-old boy being rushed to the hospital because of a Samsung phone.
- Airlines around the world are now calling for a ban of the Note 7s on all flights. (On a side note, shortly around this time, the FAA banned Note 7s from airplanes. Every airline started making the announcement to passengers that Note 7s were not allowed on board—thus reminding the public of the crisis, over and over again.)
- The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is now involved.
- Samsung still has not said how much a recall will cost beyond “A heartbreaking amount.”
- And if I haven’t emphasized it enough that “today’s stories become tomorrow’s context, here’s another example: “The question, however, is whether Samsung will be able to get customers to trust its brand and devices again. While the company was quick to address the problem, it’s unlikely many will forget the overheating and exploding concerns anytime soon.”
Consequences & Moral of the Story
Given these initial notes from the two articles, now really analyze for yourself and think about the most appropriate, ethical next steps for Samsung. Attached is a rubric that might help organize the material and help map out a plan. The rubric is based on the five types of micro-level analysis dimensions we reviewed in lesson one. Normally, you also would incorporate a macro-level analysis, looking at associated images, links, call outs, and article placement. For purposes of this analysis, though, focus on the micro-level detail in order to map out your PR response. In mapping out potential implications, consider if there is a need to shift the tone, get a spokesperson quote from Samsung, comment on certain content, etc. In mapping out your PR next steps, what are the short-term and long-term ethical considerations?
As a postscript to this story, now look at the follow-up piece (article #3) written by an industry publication one month later. Does this article provide additional insight into what Samsung did right or wrong? Are the suggestions sound? And how should Samsung’s PR team move forward?