2 weeks ago the Scottish Sunday Express led with this cover story (PDF) on how the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were turning 18 and – shock, horror – drinking and making rude gestures. Reporter Paula Murray, it seemed, had “managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles.” You can read it in full here (text) and also here (PDF). The original was quickly taken down.
So far, so middle market. But what happened next was an abject lesson for the Express – and Paula – in how things have changed for journalists who will do anything for a ‘story’.
“Clearly aware of the legal guidelines in place to protect those under eighteen against invasion of privacy (and the specific instructions that the Press Complaints Commission issued regarding the Dunblane children), she waited until they hit eighteen. Then she wrote this.”
At the time of writing his post has had 173 comments, the Facebook protest group has over 6,800 members and the petition has had over 10,000 signatories.
Bloggerheads – who you may remember from their campaign against Daily Mail journalist Julie Moult – highlighted at length Paula Murray’s double standards in her own use of social media, including many images culled from her Facebook profile and Twitter account:
“In her attack on Dunblane survivors, Paula Murray castigated and demonised survivors of that tragedy who “boasted about alcoholic binges”, which is EXACTLY what she’s doing here.”
It’s largely self-congratulatory: “It is 81 years since the first edition of this great newspaper rolled off the presses in Glasgow,” is the first line. The last is: “The Scottish Sunday Express is a big newspaper, with a long and illustrious history. We are also big enough to say we are truly sorry.”
Big enough to say sorry, but not big enough to allow people to comment on the apology. The door is closed. Talk to the hand.
Big enough to say sorry, but not big enough to realise that the balance of power has shifted. Your readers are your distributors. Piss them off, and you have a distribution problem.
If I was a senior staffer on the Scottish Sunday Express I’d see this as a distribution opportunity. I would open comments on the apology and respond to them myself. I might even give Paula Murray some quick training in online communication and point out that she would do well to engage herself.
I would use the apology to link to the Facebook group and online petition to show that we were aware of them. I would also visit that Facebook group and apologise there.
I would visit as many forums and blogs as I can and apologise again.
And I would follow up and address responses to my apology that raise reasonable points I can respond to.
I would not entrust this to a PR company or marketing department, or to a junior member of staff. Because this is about distribution – and you wouldn’t entrust a negotiation with TNT to a PR person would you?
Start learning. Start talking.