It usually begins with an early morning phone call and an exasperated voice on the end of the line saying something like: Have you seen the front page? Or, did you seen the news last night?
The voice belongs to an anxious client who has suddenly found their company has made the news, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. The deeper question is really – why are we suddenly considered the leading item on today's news agenda?
What makes news is often pretty obvious…and sometimes an utter mystery. So allow me to let you in on a secret: Determining what makes the news and what doesn’t is not always an exact science. Often it comes down to luck – or more precisely, bad luck. In TV news they call it the line-up. In very simple terms, this is just the order in which the stories will run. Most commercial TV news bulletins consist of 10 minutes in the first break, 5 minutes in the second, 7 minutes of sport, a couple of minutes of weather plus time for the all important commercials to help pay the bills.
In commercial news and current affairs the lead item is determined primarily by viewer interest and yes, bad news tends to sell much better than the good. Some days though, to be frank, there just isn't that much around. In my 10 years as a senior news producer I used to joke to colleagues that slow news days must have meant a pretty good day for the world because not much bad stuff was happening. Those days are the most dangerous for companies sitting on a potential news item . All of a sudden, what was likely to be squeezed into the second break becomes the lead story – or the front page. This is also why sneaky government PR folk often store up their dirty laundry media releases or announcements to pop out under the cover of the biggest news story of the week, month or year (depends on how dirty). Unfortunately the opposite principle applies here: Poor news days mean that even the most inoccuous yarn that might be struggling to get a run on any other day is suddenly in 72 point headlines on page 1 or the subject of a two minute piece at the top of the TV news.
Of course, there are ways to navigate through this potential minefield – and I suppose that's why people like me have a job. But don't let any PR or so called media guru tell you there is a perfect solution. There's not. One of the wonderful (and dreadful) things about the news agenda is that nobody really knows what is going to happen next. So next time your company finds itself at the centre of some unwanted attention courtesy of a prominent story on a slow news day, don't beat up yourself (or your PR people)…news happens.