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If you’re an operator running a safe, responsible, and ethical family bus business, you may wonder why you don’t recognize the motorcoach industry often depicted in the media.
You’re not imagining things. The mainstream media often distort the industry’s image, and you suffer collateral damage as a result. Let’s look at why this dynamic exists — and how you can fight it.
Motorcoach operators are one of America’s few remaining multi-generational, family-run, mom-and-pop small business sectors. Sure, everyone knows the iconic names of the big dogs and mega-companies that dominate the scheduled service sector of the landscape. But small charter and tour bus companies make up most of the motorcoach businesses throughout North America. Indeed, about three-quarters of all bus companies have fleets of fewer than 10 motorcoaches.
So why are the media so quick to turn them into villains?
Attitudes, thinking patterns and preconceived notions among journalists are shaped as far back as college. Part of that mindset is to view businesses in general, of all sizes, as putting profits over people. When journalists imbued with such biases are assigned to cover a story on an industry they know nothing about, other than a bus just crashed, it is predictable how the story is likely to play out.
Sweeping generalizations about the media are no more accurate than such views of any other profession — say, a small mom-and-pop bus company, for instance. As with any occupation, there are good reporters and bad reporters. But having been a journalist in the mainstream media earlier in my career, I can attest to the newsroom groupthink that often drives decisions about how key players in a news story are reflexively perceived and portrayed. Such reporters embrace those notions before even starting to gather information or conduct interviews.
We’ve all heard the macabre media truism, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Yes, bad news makes good headlines. But it’s more complex than that.
NO CHARTER SCHOOL HERE
During the past two decades, journalism schools have shifted the way they teach the craft of reporting. In the good old days, aspiring scribes were taught to write as if they were recorders of events — just the facts on who, what, where, when, why and how. Today, journalism students are taught they have a more critical role than chronicler of the first draft of history. They are taught what academics euphemistically call “civic journalism.”
In this idealized world, journalists don’t just convey the facts, but act in their readers’ civic interests. Their inherent presumption is that they all know what their readers want (activist government, more regulations, broader oversight, etc.), although they never seem to have bothered to poll their readers, nor been elected by anyone to promote such an agenda.
Civic journalism is actually “agenda journalism.” Its practitioners prefer the vague and fuzzy “civic journalism” to hide the agenda being pushed. And that agenda is clearly antithetical to “corporate interests” and “big business.” Your company, no matter how small, is considered part of that category.
Never mind, Mom, that you and Pop and Sonny and Sis are running the small family charter and tour company Grandpa started back in the day. Forget that you have a stellar safety record, impeccable customer service, and good green practices. Civic journalism requires that, for the purposes of the story, operators, no matter how small, be “corporate fat cats” in the bus industry — even “bus barons” — that are all guilty by association when a motorcoach marauder lacking FMCSA operating authority crashes.
TAWDRY MORALITY TALES
Every story needs a villain and a victim. A bus crashes. Victims are the innocents harmed by the bus bandit operating illegally. Villain is the evil bus industry that skimped on safety, evaded authorities, reincarnated themselves, etc. Consumers good, business bad. This becomes a guiding principle that, over time, infuses everything the media report. The cycle is repeated with such regularity and predictability that it at least provides responsible operators with a chance to prepare a strategy to inoculate their reputations.
Implicit in this “civic journalism” social compact is the notion that the media are self-annointed, self-policing societal watchdogs. As civic journalists, they have been trained to expose consumer dangers, which, they’ve also been trained to presume, are almost always caused by corporate cover-ups to increase profits. This, by extension, is the leading cause of endangering public safety, as the media see it.
Now, much of this would be sheer conjecture were it not inflamed by the other key players in this drama: “consumer watchdog groups.” They are driven by the hubris that they know what’s best for everyone else — a trait they share with their friends, the civic journalists. Such “public interest groups” purport to speak on behalf of the public, despite no cries from the public to do so. In assuming the identity of “the voice of the consumer,” such groups convince the media that they are trustworthy. And that requires anyone associated with business to be a villain. This is why and how the media develop and act on preconceived notions about your business.
So, while Sonny and Pop are inviting authorities in for spot inspections of their fleet safety at any time, the television news is teasing prime-time viewers to keep their eyeballs glued to this station for the titillating story on the 11 o’clock news: Mayhem On The Motorcoach! Beware Of Buses! What You Don’t Know About Bus Companies Can Hurt You! And of course the story includes an on-camera interview with a consumer activist group saying the bus industry is unsafe.
CLEAR UP THE MEDIA MESS
Perhaps the media will knock at your door one day soon to interview you about bus safety. Sure, it wasn’t your bus that crashed. But you may be the closest operator located to the news station. So you are now the voice, the face, the ambassador of the industry.
Don’t say, “It wasn’t my bus” and slam the door, though you have every right to do so. Look at it as an opportunity. Here’s your chance to tell the great story about the industry’s record as the safest form of ground transportation and its decades of documented calls on government to do more to get illegal operators off the roads.
Invite the news crew in as if you were expecting them. Give them a tour, speak to them from your office, your facility lot, in front of one of your buses, or inside of one. But be sure the location you choose — now that you’ve got them on your territory — has your company name and logo visible behind you at all times.
Given media preconceived notions about your company, what are you going to do about it? Make it your job to dispel those notions. Be an ambassador of your fine industry. Then, the real civic activist will be clear to everyone.
Eron Shosteck is President & CEO of The Media Consultant Group, a strategic communications firm specializing in motorcoach, tour and travel issues. He welcomes your comments via email to [email protected]
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