Everyone’s a Reporter

January 2, 2014

Mark Bernheimer
Mark Bernheimer

By Mark Bernheimer

Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

Imagine how miserable he would have been in the era of bloggers.

Journalism textbooks are filled with case studies of politicians and celebrities undone by reporters — from Richard Nixon to John Edwards, and Tiger Woods to Lance Armstrong.

But it wasn’t the traditional media that brought down Mitt Romney, Anthony Weiner, or Toronto Mayor Rob Ford; at least, not singlehandedly. Romney’s presidential campaign was derailed by a bartender with a hidden video camera. Weiner’s career effectively ended with his own famous tweets of his own infamous private parts. And make no mistake: It wasn’t just crack cocaine that brought about Mayor Ford’s fall from grace. It was the YouTube clips depicting his indulgences.

In the new media age, reporters no longer wear fedoras adorned with cards that read “Press.” They may not even wear laminated credentials around their necks. But that doesn’t mean that reporters are hard to recognize. It’s easier than ever to spot them, and that’s because in the new media age, everyone is a reporter.

The first reports of the emergency landing known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” arrived seconds after the airplane did, via Twitter. And when Asiana flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco Airport last year, the best pictures came from passengers who, unfortunately for them, had the kind of access that no press photographer could ever hope for.

It may seem daunting to develop a media strategy that regards everyone as a potential journalist. But it’s rather simple. For PR professionals, the media training rules that apply when engaging a local TV news reporter work just as well with a blogger or a teenager with a popular YouTube channel. Here are some tips for working with bloggers and other social media reporters:

  • Realize that you’re always on the record. Adopt the mindset that everyone over the age of 14 has a TV network and a printing press in his or her pocket. It may feel as though you are dealing directly with an angry customer, a local voter or a friendly competitor. Just remember that each one of those people has the means to take your message to the masses — whether you want that or not.

    Put another way, don’t say or write anything that you wouldn’t want to see someone retweet.
  • Use your media skills. Effective media communicators use time-tested techniques such as brevity, bridging and branding to turn answers into messages. You shouldn’t abandon these tactics just because there isn’t a news van in sight. Speaking in clear sound bites will help minimize the possibility that someone may take your words out of context, if they happen to go viral.
  • Proceed with caution. Are you planning to sit down with a blogger? Remember that they often play by their own rules. While many are highly trained, respectable professionals whose careers predate the Internet, others often lack the education, experience and scruples of their counterparts in the traditional media. Talking to a reporter always requires professional discipline, but it’s more important than ever in the new media age.

It is impossible to ignore citizen journalists and unnecessary to fear them. But remember what’s at stake: Now that everyone’s a reporter, one wrong move could be your PR Waterloo.

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN national correspondent, and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an international media training and consulting firm.


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