• The Pepper Shaker

  • July 2018
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Compassion vs. Sensationalism

Only a week after arriving in Australia to commence my studies at the University of Sydney, the country’s “sister” nation of New Zealand was devastated by a powerful 6.3 earthquake. Even though I had only just arrived, I knew those around me would be affected by the events in Christchurch. They would perhaps have family, close friends, colleagues, or other loved ones complicated by or suffering from the incident.

As I watched the news reports roll out over the following days, I began to notice a trend in the style of news coverage that I was not accustomed to seeing. Footage of limp bodies being pulled from rubble, older folk walking by the screen with blood on their shirt, another woman holding a bloody cloth to her head as she cried. I was taken aback by the real-life video of these people obviously in pain, and realized that I would likely have never seen such intense video if I was back home.

Human Nature: A Constant Battle

Many people undoubtedly share the same feelings of empathy and sadness after disasters like the Christchurch earthquake. According to communications scholars who studied the effects of the media, those feelings of empathy that naturally occur should be a guideline in professional media matters. “The sacredness of life, evident in the natural being, grounds a responsibility that is global in scope and self-evident regardless of cultures and competing ideologies” (Ward 2010). This is to say that caring and empathetic feelings should create in media professionals a safeguard from overexposing the distress and grim reality of events out of respect for those who suffered.

However, as Immanuel Kant indicated, there are “particular attributes of human nature” that lead us to wrongful acts. In order to help prevent these actions, we should only act if at the same time we would will it to be a universal law, meaning that one’s judgment and following action could be applied to everyone, including one’s self. (Abbot 1909, p. 38).  Such thinking requires one to place him or herself into the shoes who are receivers of the action. In the Christchurch earthquake case, it would require reporters and photojournalists and their editors to put themselves in the shoes of those affected before publishing their work.

Codes for Compassion

It is this type of noble work that many journalists’ codes of ethics encourage. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), an international organisation, states the following rule in part of their code for ethical journalist behaviour: “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage” (Code of Ethics 2011). The compassion journalists should have in their work again echoes the principle that media workers should not publish or otherwise exploit the distressed. Instead, they should offer honorable news stories that respect individuals’ privacy and be sensitive to feelings, as they would want had positions been reversed.

The guideline to report the news with respect and compassion to those who are affected seems to be a globally-held guideline for journalists. A discrepancy, though, lies in where the line of decency should be maintained. Rightfully so, too. Compassion is like other virtuous traits and has a broad range of expression. Some people may have little to offer while other have much to give. This presents some problems in maintaining a concrete guideline that protects the private moments of distress of individuals and broadcast decent news.

Decency Throughout the World

Another important observation is that this guideline fluctuates between countries around the world. If this guideline is so widely believed and obeyed, then news workers throughout the world should be consistent in their reporting. But it is not. A closer look on how the Christchurch earthquake was broadcast throughout the world indicates this point.

To evaluate how the line of decency changes throughout the world, I reviewed three television news broadcast reports of the Christchurch earthquake immediately following the event. One was a news video broadcast from The Los Angeles Times in the US, another from an international Latin American news broadcast, and a third television broadcast from a major news station in New Zealand.

The video broadcast from the US displayed film of people conversing in streets, reports by government officials, destroyed buildings, and a short clip showing bleeding (Deadly Quake 2011).


The television report from New Zealand pictured clips of people scurrying to escape falling buildings, conversing in streets, some official reports and longer segments of blood and distress (Christchurch Earthquake 2011).

The Latin American television news broadcast presented constant clips of distress, a limp body, rescue efforts and rubble, with much less presentation of official reports by a governing officer (Primer Impacto 2011).

Clearly, the line of what is decent to air varies widely between these three regions.

It is observable that the reports relay a similar use of exported B-roll film, likely recorded by local news organizations. It is interesting to review which clips each news organisation choose to use and if they added to it more exclusive footage. The reasons for this variation may have to do with the cultural expectations of the news media, a reflection of cultural values, or knowledge and adherence to professional journalistic guidelines. Compassion, by definition provided SPJ Code of Ethics, appears to vary for some reason or another.

Sensational Journalism

The most difficult problem may be caused by the marketing power of sensationalism. According to research, sensationalism is vague by definition, even in academic circles (Grabe, 2001). It indicates that topics that are often sensationalized for attention are stories about crime, accidents, disaster, and scandal. Interestingly, all of these points call for sensitivity from journalists reporting the news. The main effects of sensational journalism are threefold: it displaces socially significant stories, violates notions of human decency, and is seen as a marketing ploy that debases the purpose of news. (Grabe, 2001).

If compassion is the guideline to which media professionals maintain news decency, then sensationalism is its nemesis. Future industry workers should maintain the more virtuous part, if not for compassion alone, then at least for the sake of honest journalism and honorable behaviour.


PR Patties

I came across yet another peppery example of public relations today.

The scene: Bustling Tokyo.

The background: There are a lot of people in a small area. They all eat rice daily.

The problem: Too many business buildings, not enough farmland for rice to sustain everyone. People get mad at businesses for taking land, and businessmen start to sweat.

The solution: Simple! Put a rice paddy in your office building!

The outcome: The company produces the rice on their own dime. Neighbors are happy their environment isn’t entirely wasted due to big business.

My take: I think it’s great. Not only does it appear to ease tensions over food production and land management, but it helps those well-dressed white collars to get down-to-earth. While some might think they do it in vain, I think it helps concerned citizens understand that they are trying their best. I’ve read  a lot of jokes about undertaking this particular program here (like, do they serve the rice in their own cafeteria, too?) but I think their efforts are worthwhile and may increase moral among employees. What do you think?

All Eyes on You for Halloween

Making publicity plans around holidays has got to be a staple for PR and marketing professionals. Everyone loves a holiday, so it would be best to associate your brand with themes and feelings that people already love. The more unique the tactic you present to the situation, the better. And because Halloween is all about having fun, it’s easy.

On the most candy-glorified day of the year, what would a dentist do? An example I’ve seen is from a dental practice in Santa Barbara, CA called Johnson Family Dental. They are holding an event where kids can trade in their Halloween candy for money. It was the first time I’ve heard of the idea – and the idea is brilliant. Why? Because the message all dentists would want to convey is dental hygiene.  If they hold this idea to the max, they might give you a toothbrush when you knock on their door. (Sad time for kids, I’m sure.)

Happy Halloween!

Events like these bring people through thier doors as kids, maybe with a push from parents, come inside to trade a pound of candy for a two dollars. Johnson Family Dental will then send the money to troops overseas through Operation Gratitude. Doesn’t get much better than that. This kind of event, one in which everyone benefits, results in a win-win-win situation. It might take more thought, but that’s what good PR requires.

Pepper Mill #2: Analyst Relations

I’ll make this Pepper Mill about analyst relations. It’s a field I have my feet in right now. Analyst relations deals with the positive relationships built between a company and industry research analysts. These analyst firms produce valuable research on current trends as well as forecast what these trends will experience in the near future. They produce helpful analysis on the market and indicate which companies are leaders.

I currently work in high tech PR. The analyst relations team here works to interact with these analysts, cooperate with them when they need data, educate them on the company vision and strategy, and meet together to answer questions. In turn, analysts use the data to form quantitative and qualitative research. Their reports are authoritative. Competitors use and site their reports and statistics to their advantage.

Gartner Magic Quadrant

Gartner Magic Quadrant

For example, Gartner is a very successful analyst firm. They produce a report called “Magic Quadrants” that rank leaders in specific areas. They way they are ranked determines if they are leaders, visionaries, challengers, or niche players. Companies want to strive to fall to the upper right corner of this graph to the right.

Keeping good with analysts is vital. Without an established relationship with them, companies lose out and go without consideration of being a market player. Now what company would want that? Relationships with them can be supported by holding briefings, calling them with updates, interacting with their tweets and blogs, and being the go-to for all their research needs regarding your organization. More information on analysts can be found on sites like www.sagecircle.com.

PR Fails

I think the best attitude to have when starting in the field of public relations is one that recognizes that sometimes you will fail. And that’s okay. Some of the best in the industry have their terrifying moments, too. It happens to everyone. And many of them they are able to laugh at those failures years later, so it’s best not to be too critical of yourself when it happens.

Public relations failures often occur when you are: telling untrue stories, overlooking important facts, forgetting key people, making assumptions, and do things just to look good. (I find this to be true in my personal life, too!)

When mistakes are made, it’s best to figure out where you stand and how to say you are sorry. You don’t always need to apologize or assume guilt where it’s not rightfully yours, but if it is, then you better fess up. Apple fell into this trap recently when they didn’t (at least for a very long time) admit their iPhones weren’t working right, and even deleted comments about it on their Web site’s open forum. I think if we remember that people are always looking, then we would be better off.

I came across this video today, showing how this PR guy totally tried to manipulate the situation he found himself in. A reporter had come to interview about how the local hospital was misusing funds. The PR director tries to intervene and cover up the situation and avoid the reporter. You will likely find him as annoying as I did.

I’m sure the communication director regrets his actions. He was probably acting out in panic. Can’t blame a reporter for doing some dirty work for a good story.

Here is a link to a LinkedIn discussion. Some public relations professionals discuss their own PR fails on it. I read it wondering what kinds of PR situations I might find myself in one day. Have you ever had any PR failures?

Pepper Mill #1: Public Relations

Let’s discuss the umbrella term “public relations.” What comes to mind? Do you picture a sneaky businessman crossing out phrases on documents with a big smile on his face? Or do you see an overly enthusiastic woman giving a speech to reporters while dodging questions or re-wording stories to her advantage?

These are common misconceptions.  Those stereotypes often get used in movies and in passive conversations. But really, what do public relations professionals do?

Public relations practitioners build relationships with important people that influence your business. Take a look at the picture to the right. PR specialists and managers do whatever is in their power to promote their products and the good name of the company to their associates. By building these relationships, they build trust in the company. And when that trust grows, those associates in turn promote your business to consumers who will raise profits.

Imagine your relationships with the people you know: family, friends, co-workers. How you associate with each one is different. They are treated differently, and benefits of each relationship is different. Ultimately, they gain trust in you, which can have many advantages.

We’ll get into specific trends and ideas as these Pepper Mills are introduced, but one thing encompasses them all: public relations is the art of building business relationships. What does public relations mean to you?

Peppercorn #3: LinkedIn

Things are changing out there, even with the way you network with colleagues and find jobs with contacts. Have you ever wanted to bring employers to you, instead of having to track down employers? Have you ever wanted to deal with people when applying for job, instead of automated responses that come from nowhere? Or have you ever remembered somebody that worked at a place you are now interested in, but can’t remember who it was? Enter LinkedIn.

Personally, you will be able to put everything professional about yourself on your profile. Don’t be shy or think you’re bragging either, because when it comes to LinkedIn, it’s all about making your work and education history shine. You’ll find and connect – kind of like becoming someone’s “friend” on LinkedIn – with people you know, connecting you to a whole multitude of pros.

For businesses, PR managers and specialists can create groups, (they most often go by the company name,) where people who have worked or are currently working can stay in the know about job openings or updates. With groups, you can also start discussions. If the questions are right, you can gather good opinions from those inside and out of your company.

There are already over 60 million LinkedIn users. I find that many of them are in communications/journalism/advertising/PR/politics and the like. So get connected!

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