Monday, January 24, 2011

We're Only Human!

Sometimes, as has been pointed out in this space numerous times, lessons can be learned from watching other people's mistakes.  And let me be very clear on this, we ALL make mistakes.  Journalists are just as human as you are and, as you have probably noticed from time to time, they make mistakes.

This isn't a posting about how to overcome mistakes in your PR or social media efforts.  You're going to make them.  In most cases, these mistakes are going to be minor in nature and you'll be able to overcome them with thought and diligence.

No, this is more like, storytime with Real Public Relations.  By the end, you'll hopefully have a bit of insight into the way newsrooms work, about how personalities can get in the way of doing good work, and how that can all have an impact on your pitches and PR efforts.

A couple of examples:

Ever make a mistake in your job?  Of course you have.  Usually when you do, the only one that notices is your boss, maybe your co-workers.  What you DON'T have is the general public breathing down your neck, pointing, laughing, cursing.  When a journalist goofs, that's exactly what happens.  Plus, mistakes don't do much for the reputation, which is basically all that journalists have to rely on.  But it happens, a lot.  Take this story for instance:
WESH News Van Gets Jammed Under Orlando Overpass:

A WESH news van got stuck under an Orlando overpass on Wednesday after the vehicle’s mast had been accidentally raised.
Reporter Greg Fox was riding in the van along with photographer Frank Burt when the raised mast struck the underside of a highway overpass, tipping the vehicle onto two wheels.
A fire rescue crew was called to the scene, according to the Orlando Sentinel, and rescue workers steadied the van using jacks so that Fox and Burt could exit safely.
Orlando CBS-affiliate WKMG reported on its rivals’ misfortune during the station’s  7 p.m. newscast.
The WESH crew told officials that the van had successfully passed under another overpass before the accident, leading them to believe that the mast’s deployment was a technical malfunction.
Here's another one:  Have you ever worked in an office with someone you don't get along with? Have you had to deal with that person under extremely tight deadlines, forced teamwork and unrealistic expectation all in an environment of pressure-cooker proportions?  No?  Well, journalists often have to deal with these types of situations.  And this can be the result:
Newsroom Brawl Lands WCCB Anchor Brien Blakely in Hospital

Anchor Brien Blakely spent Tuesday evening at a Charlotte emergency room instead of the WCCB anchor desk after getting into a violent altercation with a news producer.
Moments before WCCB’s 10 p.m. newscast, Blakely got into an argument with a producer that escalated into a physical brawl.  During the fight, Blakely, who joined the Charlotte Fox-affiliate in 2005, was sent flying over a desk.  His nose was badly cut during the fall and he was rushed to an area hospital for treatment.
Police were called to the scene but no charges were filed.
“I was protecting the honor and integrity of our station,” Blakely told the Charlotte Observer about the fight.
The news producer walked out of the station after the altercation as Blakely went to the hospital.  Both men were not at work on Wednesday.
WCCB has had its fair share of turmoil recently.  In December, news director Ken Whitewas arrested for walking off with a bag of groceries at an area supermarket.
While the station is not commenting on the fight, Blakely says that the incident is behind him.
“These things happen,” he told the Observer. “It’s over. We’re buddies again.”
Take a look at that last sentence.  "It's over.  We're buddies again."  Sounds ludicrous, right?  That two grown men got into a fight in a newsroom in the first place, but then, after one of them ends up in the hospital, that they could be "buddies".  But it's true, it happens.  I know from personal experience.

Rumble In The Rockies:

There happens to be a newsroom culture that is kind of hard to explain.  But put simply, it's a high-stress, fast-paced environment full of strong personalities.  Things get tense, tempers flare, people clash, there are arguments.  Sometimes these arguments get very, ahem, heated.  But here's what you have to understand.  It's not personal.  Unlike politics and religion, the newsroom wars are typically short, intense explosions that burn out quickly.  Afterwards, you shake hands and you go out for beers together.

I've had several clashes with co-workers while working in news.  For instance:

When I was in radio, we used to have an area called, "The Pit" where all the producers and talk show hosts used to be located.  We'd discuss news of the day, as we all tried to put our shows together.  The arguments used to get so heated and loud that management issued several memorandums telling us, in essence, to keep quiet.

One morning, my host, Peter Boyles, and I got into a short but heated argument about which topic we were going to start the show off with.  We disagreed vehemently and at 4am tempers flared.  He told me to "F" off, I flipped him the bird, words were exchanged, he threw a piece of his bagel at me.  Fortunately, we were separated by several inches of soundproof glass as I was in the booth and he was in the studio.

Fast forward several years and I had just moved from one TV station to another.  I was producing the morning news and our show had been experiencing some serious technical difficulties.  As a producer who had spent hours crafting the rundown, writing copy, organizing guests, there's nothing more frustrating than technical issues.  From the booth I continued to press the technical and editing staff to get them on the ball.  Of course, they didn't take that well.  Immediately after the show, I made a beeline to the technical room downstairs and sought out the senior editor on shift that morning.

He defended his crew, I defended mine.  Again, words were exchanged, and an offer to "take it outside" was made.  We nearly went, too.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.  We were ushered down to the News Director's office and reprimanded severely.  The fact is, by the time we reached the ND's office, we were fine.  We realized how stupid we had acted and it was completely forgotten.  There truly were no hard feelings.  To this day, that man is one of my favorite individuals that I worked with at that station.

Sh** Happens:

Sometimes, however, mistakes simply happen.  You'd be surprised how often the issue of a non-retracted tower plagues a newsroom, whether it be radio or TV.  Fortunately, the stations I worked at had the good sense to keep me from driving around any sensitive or expensive equipment.  I was relegated to holding a microphone or staying back at the station to report and write.  But I've witnessed some real doozies.

One Halloween night our station had decided it would be a great idea to broadcast live from the Denver Press Club, one of the most haunted places (reportedly) in Denver.  The shows were great radio.  Seances, wonderful interviews, compelling storytelling.  At 9pm sharp, the host signed off and the truck operator began to pack things up.  All the wires were coiled, the equipment placed and locked down.  Everything seemed in order.  With one big exception, the mast was still up.

As the truck pulled away, it carried off the awning in front of the building.  An awning that had survived fires, vandalism and a century of wear, tear and weather, was simply no match for a radio truck with a 20-foot broadcast mast.

The repercussions were swift and terrible.  We all had to train on the truck and learn the secrets of the mast.  Plus, suspensions were threatened if it happened again.  Of course, the next time a big remote was planned, the truck was operated by the manager of the department himself.  It was a great remote, again wonderful radio.  It was just after Thanksgiving and the show that aired right after mine decided to broadcast live from a hilltop above Golden where a man calling himself the "Real Santa Clause" resided.  He raised reindeer, lived in a wooden shack and dressed like Kris Kringle.

Once again, the show was a hit.  After signing off, the crew wrapped up.  With the manager in charge of things, no one thought twice to think about the truck mast.  of COURSE it had been retracted.  In a moment of serendipity, someone took a photo of the manager standing outside the truck, with the producer and talk show host sitting just inside getting ready to go.  In the background, you could see the mast clearly still raised.

Within minutes, the truck was on its way and promptly ran smack dab into several power lines directly overhead.  The power lines snapped and fell to the ground, some landed on top of the van.  This kept the crew in the van trapped inside as thousands of volts of electricity coursed through the van and into the ground.  They were safe as long as they stayed inside, but once they stepped outside, if they touched the van, they would have been torched.

Sadly, the mast also pulled some power lines out of the box at Santa Clause's shack, starting a fire.  Within ten minutes the shack was ablaze, and Clause was trying to put out the inferno with a water hose, which quickly melted.

Below, at the bottom of the hill, the fire department could see the flames.  The producer of the show told me later that she could see the firemen walk out of the firehouse and looking up at the fire, pointing and wondering what in the world was going on.  About an hour later the fire had been put out, the power lines had been cleared and the truck was back on the road.

The following morning, the picture that had been taken moments before the mishap mysteriously appeared on the door of the manager's office.  Someone had written in a thought balloon, "Hmmm, what am I forgetting?" with an arrow pointing to the still-erect mast.

True to their word, however, the manager was suspended for two days. 

Don't Judge:

There are a million stories just like those.  I alone could spend hours telling of similar events based solely on my experiences.  The point to all this is that everyone makes mistakes.  Reporters, editors, producers, they're only human.  They will, from time to time, mess up on a fact, not check a critical piece of equipment or simply misspell a name. 

I've heard many complaints in my time about how a newsroom got their name wrong, misquoted them or didn't get the right address for their business.  In some cases a wrong logo was put up, or the story simply didn't run when it was supposed to.  This happens.  Your best bet to deal with these types of mistakes is to be patient.  Don't lose your cool, get angry, yell or beat down the door. 

You can try to prevent these mistakes from happening by following up with the newsroom.  Email them the correct information in simple, easy to read fonts and short sentences.  Make sure they received the information and then follow up again to make sure they have everything correct.  Even then, it may not end up correct on the air or in the paper. 

When this happens, calmly and coolly contact the reporter or producer and let them know the information was wrong.  Ask them to make a correction and then, let it go.  Trust me, they'll feel bad about the mistake and do what they can to fix it.  By being professional about it, you'll earn way more points with the newsroom than if you yell and scream.  Because even though journalists are able to fight with a coworker and then immediately forget about the conflict, when it comes to people outside the newsroom, they have memories like elephants.  They'll remember how you treated them and the next time you pitch a story, you just won't be worth the time or effort.

You can learn something from the newsroom culture in this respect.  It's okay to disagree, even get upset, but don't make it personal and then, when it's done, forget about it.  Move on and focus on other more important things.  If you can do this, you'll quickly earn a reputation as someone who really cares about their business, but is easy to work with and handles things professionally.  Even if the mistake is completely theirs, it's best to chalk it up as an honest mistake and cheerfully thank them for their time before pitching them again in the future.  Trust me on this.  I mean, we're only human, right?

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