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Good news? Go to a PR agency!

This morning my eye fell on a piece in daily newspaper De Volkskrant headlined ‘Journalists overload their audience with crises and drama’. Well, tell me all about it. Having worked in PR for fifteen years, the statement did not surprise me much. When I glanced and saw the piece was written by a journalist (Mirjam Vossen), I was pleasantly surprised by this striking feat of introspection.

She argued that journalists are so focused on drama, disaster and conflict that positive trends remain underexposed. There is plenty of attention for hurricanes Harvey and Irma, for instance, but no mention of the fact that the number of victims of natural disasters has decreased by 98 percent. Each murder is blown up into a page-long story, including all the gruesome details, without any reference to the total number of murders, which has halved in twenty years.

I recognize this pattern. In the past few years, I have had direct experience of how difficult the relationship between PR people and (newspaper) journalists can be, and it cannot be denied that the latter feel some contempt of our profession. They think that they do not need us because they themselves are perfectly capable of making news and are, often wrongly, rather negative about our writing skills, conveniently ignoring that many PR consultants started as journalists.  I must admit, though, that the information that we, as a professional agency, send on behalf of our customers is not always as newsworthy.

The main reason, however, that our pitches with journalists fail is that they still adhere to the old adage of ‘good news is no news'. This leads to hilarious situations: a journalist who received an e-mail invitation for an interview with the Dutch CEO of an international company that had made global headlines in a less than positive way was on the phone in less than five minutes. When it turned out that the Dutch branch had been doing fine for years, the interview suddenly became less interesting. In case of bankruptcy or redundancies, they're on the phone within minutes, but they're nowhere to be found when there is good news about impressive results, additional jobs or innovative technologies. Try and explain that to the client, who hires us to share their good news and wonderful success stories with the world.

There have been initiatives to create media that focus on the good news. Those were not long-lived, however, or lead a stumbling existence while producing questionable levels of journalism. The Dutch all-positive newspaper Goed Nieuwskrant (‘your medicine against all acrimony in the world’) has become available online only, as have Happy News and Goednieuws.com. Regional newspaper BN De Stem launched a ‘good news page’ a while ago, but its frequency remained limited to once a week, yet another tell-tale sign. Sites such as Nieuws van de vooruitgang (Progress News) and World Best News are, at best, well-intentioned promotional tools for sustainability and development aid, respectively.

Perhaps newspaper journalists should follow the example of trade media, where PR agencies are accepted content providers as long as they observe the rules of journalism and where cooperation is excellent. Of course our stories tend to have a positive tone: we prefer writing on promising innovations, striking trends, new technologies and successful applications to the benefit of our readers, i.e. businesses and entrepreneurs.

In her submission, Mirjam Vossen addressed the need for ‘responsible journalism’, not only because bad news depresses people, but also because important underlying developments and positive trends remain invisible due to this one-sided focus on misery. She says it will make for better news as it is the journalist's task to critically monitor and analyse relevant events. This includes beautiful, positive stories. They improve image development, instil confidence and motivate people to continue to look for solutions. I know where journalists can find such beautiful stories.

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Caption: Many journalists have a preference for drama, disaster and conflict, causing important underlying developments and positive trends to remain invisible.

Theo Snijders

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