Pandora – a box of facts or opinions

Investigative journalism has previously been coined as ‘the journalism of outrage’
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By Tom Adams

It’s relatively rare for journalists to create their own news. It is in many respects a reactive profession – regular readers of our newsletter and attendees of our training programmes will be familiar with how journalists identify what makes a newsworthy story.

However, often journalists will conduct their own investigations in attempts to discover news stories that they consider to be in the public interest. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) describes their work as follows: “We collaborate on ground-breaking investigations that expose the truth and hold the powerful accountable, while also adhering to the highest standards of fairness and accuracy.”

In October, the ICIJ broke the latest in a string of financial releases called the Pandora Papers which they claimed, ‘reveal the inner workings of a shadow economy that benefits the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of everyone else.’

Investigative journalists have been breaking news about the financial affairs of the rich and famous routinely for the last decade. The Pandora Papers is the latest in a string of investigations that includes the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers and other localised leaks such as the Liberty Tax Scheme in the UK.

From a communications perspective, stories like these pose a particularly interesting set of challenges. Investigative journalism has previously been coined as ‘the journalism of outrage’, and there is potentially no subject more inflammatory in terms of moral indignation than global tax regimes and the ever-elusive concept of ‘fairness’.

In most cases in these types of releases, those named are rarely accused of anything illegal. Indeed, many journalists will include a small line, usually hidden somewhere at the end of their piece, that being named as part of the story does not indicate any wrongdoing, no doubt at the request of their respective legal departments.

Instead, the value of the story is in the portrayal of tax efficient systems or practices and those who use them as fundamentally immoral. Whether you agree with this interpretation or not will depend largely on your own leanings, but it’s worth highlighting and understanding that stories like these are designed to resonate in the court of public opinion where they can have far reaching impacts.

When we apply some of these principles to our own crisis communications thinking, we can begin to think about how to draw some lessons that might apply to your own crisis communications planning:

You can dispute facts, not opinions. In any crisis, it is tempting to want to robustly counter any negative reporting of any type. The reality is, you can’t stop any journalist, or indeed any reader from holding an opinion. Instead, you must continue to use facts and simple key messages to tell your side of the story and subsequently influence those opinions.

All stories have a lifecycle. Some incidents are short running, some have much longer tails. Understanding where the centre of gravity is for your reputation, and where and when you are most likely to need to engage your crisis communications process, is critical to success. Engaging at the wrong time can needlessly prolong a crisis story.

Is the story really about you? Deciphering whether media coverage is designed to influence you, or influence a larger story, is key to putting in place an effective strategy. Arguably, the Pandora Papers are not actually aimed at the individuals and companies named. Instead, they’re trying to enact change at a much higher, governmental level.

When journalists report on ambiguous issues that rely on the strength of public opinion for their resonance, we all need to think about our engagement strategies with extra care.

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