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Is there a limit to the amount of bad news audiences can take?

If you are having a bad day, it certainly isn’t going to be improved by switching on the news. The most upsetting stories can be those where people talk about their own personal tragedies, as these are so easy to relate to. But does following the news really have to be such a gruelling experience? As far as Steph Cripps, senior account manager (global) at communications agency TVC, is concerned the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’: “Emotive storytelling has always been a part of our narrative and a tool that PROs, marketers, journalists, brands and organisations use to articulate their perspectives and messaging. We use ‘real people’ as our voices in the news because real people resonate with other real people.  

News should elicit a reaction
“For me, every time I hear something on the news, read an article, see a tweet or watch a video that makes me feel something – be that anger, sadness or happiness – it encourages a reaction. If I watch a video of women talking about the #metoo movement it makes me stand up for what I believe in; if I hear a story about a mother who lost her young child to cancer it reminds me to sign up to that charity run that I’ve been meaning to do.  

“Now imagine those reactions reverberating around the country. Around the world. We watch stories about people because people are the driving force for change, for empathy and for the better. So keep tweeting and sharing and filling our feeds with news.”  

Human stories bring it home
Another fan of news that tells personal, emotive stories is Claire Thompson, freelance consultant at Waves PR: “News needs to be human for us to engage with it.  

“The story told by a father a few weeks ago of watching his daughter's last moments is more likely to encourage people to support his pleas for tighter regulation of food outlets than the data driven '4 people die each month of food allergies'.   

“The horror and shame of a mother who wasn't brave enough to sit with her trapped daughter as the fire approached in Hiroshima is more likely to make us consider carefully the development of nuclear weapons and the need for peace than '129,000 people died horrific deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.'  

“Whilst data can lay out the size of a problem, the news relies on these stories to have an effect, make us consider, make us act – meaning that one of our highest currencies for PR programmes will always be 'case studies'.”  

Real life is tough
The news is not meant to be happy, because real-life is tough says Chris Gilmour, director at agency Beattie Communications: “As a cub reporter on The Sun, I was told by a grizzled news editor that news is meant to educate, inform and reflect real life. And real life is sh*t sometimes. So the news agenda often isn’t somewhere to go to be cheered up.  

“The preposterous trend towards safe spaces for those who can’t deal with a viewpoint that’s not theirs – or students at Manchester Uni banning clapping in favour of jazz hands in case loud noise upsets someone – could soon manifest itself on the news agenda.

“Imagine we ban ‘bad news’? Who decides what is good or bad, what level of upset is acceptable, and where commercial and editorial freedoms sit?

“As PROs, how would we promote campaigns to raise funds to fight life-threatening diseases, famines, natural disasters if real-life case studies were deemed too upsetting? How could we influence politicians to change laws without talking about serious crimes?

“If news is meant to reflect real life, it needs to be genuine, gritty – and occasionally tear-jerking.”

Sometimes we should resist bad news
However, Josh Hinton, consultant at PR agency LEWIS, believes that wallowing in misery isn’t always the right thing to do for the news, and is certainly not the right approach for PROs to take: “The media loves misery. Every gap in programming is automatically filled with run-of-the-mill sadness, reminding us that life is short, painful and unsafe.  

 “The horror is that we don’t rebel. We’ve been raised to believe that good news is no news, and back that up with what we read. We’re drenched in other people’s darkness and it makes our own worlds a little bit worse.  

“The temptation is for B2B brands to follow suit – but it can benefit your PR to focus on positivity instead. For example, the great tech brands sell better visions of the future, with their customers as the protagonists in an easier reality.  

 “How are your customers achieving greatness? How is your innovation changing the world? Whose day is better because your company exists? These stories can also be told.

  “We’re living through the greatest age of human invention in history, but it’s always in the nature of humans to want more. B2B brands must harness that by appealing to the desire to improve, not the fear of loss. An ethical approach doesn’t have to contradict business sense. You can make the case for your company without adding to the tide of anxiety.”  


How the news agenda is evolving by James Crawford, managing director at PR Agency One
There has never been so many broadcast channels and opportunities to get your message across. Audience figures might be falling, but targeting has become easier as consumers are becoming segmented into easier-to-define tribes. Advertising planning data allows us to really understand audiences and how to most effectively target content to them.  

What news works
Intuition, creativity and experience still play a part though. There are certain stories that we know just work for certain news outlets. Private healthcare stories tend to do really well with Sky News, for example. The BBC on the other hand likes to build up a database of trusted ‘voices’ that it calls upon whenever a certain story comes up. The BBC’s move to media city has meant an increase in diversity of experts that the BBC calls upon.  

To ensure maximum broadcast coverage it is crucial to provide broadcasters with a package. They want a location, a spokesperson, a story and often an independent voice too to make the news item seem less commercial.  

News is more selective
Broadcast news channels are closely monitoring what content works and what doesn’t in order to stay competitive. With tailored news so readily available, online broadcasters are becoming increasingly selective, only featuring the best breaking news stories and knock-out exclusives. ‘Fairly interesting’ won’t cut it – they’re after stories that have the wow factor, are record breaking or are genuinely unusual.  

For PROs this means lots of brainstorming, lots of advanced planning and wherever possible encouraging clients to sign off extra budget to work up a full campaign package which might include the story, a supporting report, a case study, a celebrity spokesperson, digital assets, etc. One of the biggest frustrations as a PR targeting broadcast media is having a great story that won’t land because there's no celeb endorsement, or the visual isn't strong enough for TV.

Topics of the month
There is a definite appetite for topics such as Brexit and other political affairs so it’s important to give these subjects a share of voice, but how much depends entirely on the broadcaster. In the same way that each print title will dedicate a select amount of space to different topics based on its target audience, each broadcaster needs to understand its audience and alter the amount of air time it gives to topics accordingly. Healthcare and technology are two other regular topics that do well in the media.   

People love human-interest stories
It's easy to forget that some broadcasters are businesses and have to consider their ratings when choosing which stories to run. As such they have to listen to what the people want and the people love human-interest stories. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to other humans and we’re especially fascinated by other people’s lives going really wrong or really right.  

With broadcasters measuring their success on ratings the structure of broadcast news is hugely influenced by analyses of what the public are tuning in for, and therefore we have to accept that the current structure is one that appeals most to the general public.

The public struggle with abstract and academic concepts and a human-interest angle is a very simplistic way to help an audience empathize, or to make a very complex discussion understandable for the man on the street.  

BBC is a favourite source of news
I personally wish every news outlet was of the same calibre of Radio 4’s Today Programme, but alas I think this is unlikely. BBC News is both the most trusted and most watched news channel in Britain with the average person spending 2 hours 46 minutes tuned into the BBC each week.

If I wanted to be brought up to speed on reliable, fact-checked news, I would turn on the BBC. That said, even within the BBC you’ll find news pitched at different audiences. BBC Radio 1 really simplifies its news for a younger audience, and Radio 5 Live is completely different to hard hitting shows, such as BBC Radio 4’s Today.

However, the BBC take measures to be politically unbiased and avoid taboo subjects, whilst other sources such as Channel 4 are able to cross that line and feature more controversial subject material. As a result, I often find that Channel 4 broadcasts some really interesting debates that I find more engaging.

 An important part of any PRO’s job is monitoring what is happening in society and that means following the news. Generally, the PR jury agrees that news is, and should be, bad news, so just make sure you don’t let it get you down! 

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