April White of Trust Relations On 5 Steps We Can Take To Win Back Trust In Journalism

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Prioritize Accuracy Over Speed and Make Visible Corrections: Always prioritize accuracy over speed, when it comes to reporting, to ensure the initial story is as complete and airtight as possible. But, when mistakes inevitably happen, make quick and visible corrections.

As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing April White.

A seasoned communications specialist, official TEDx speaker and writer, April has nearly 20 years of experience representing Fortune 100 companies and their executives at leading public relations agencies including Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Spong and Rubenstein Public Relations, she is skilled at developing targeted communications programs that convey strategic messaging, compelling narratives, intangible brand attributes and subtle points of differentiation.

April has experience not only with marquee brands including MasterCard Worldwide, MetLife International, Sotheby’s International Realty, Hyatt, Rosetta Stone, Petco, American Standard, The Dannon Company, YellowTail Wines, Sealed Air, and eMusic, but also with startups including Beekeeper, Softomotive (acquired by Microsoft), NEXT Trucking, Richr, Wilbur, Picnic Tax and Suzy. The former award-winning journalist started her own company in 2013 and coined the term “Trust Relations” in 2019, which led to the creation of the mid-sized communications agency, Trust Relations.

Thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive in, our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?

I started my career as a newspaper reporter with the high hopes of becoming a watchdog of society — and because I love to write. Early on, I had a bizarre experience with an editor who would put together budget lines for his reporters’ stories. These were essentially sample headlines with two to three sentences describing what this editor expected the story to be. Then he would take these budget lines to the editorial meetings every morning and sell them in, vying for top placements for his reporters — like the Metro section cover or 1A, the front page.

The problem was, often when I discovered through the reporting process that the actual story didn’t really align with the budget line he wrote, he would change the story I wrote to better fit with what he pitched the editors that morning. Essentially he would whitewash my articles and revert them to his initial hypothesis. So rather than keeping quotes that disagreed with his budget line, they’d get cut, etc.

I was very creeped out by it because the accuracy of my stories was suffering not even because of pressure from advertisers but simply because of this person’s ego. He was singlehandedly compromising the authenticity of my reporting.

Needless to say, my initial idealism around journalism got pretty dashed. So I decided to move into public relations.

However, I still long for journalism to uphold the standards I wanted it to have at the outset of my career, which is why I’ve come full circle to wanting to speak out about the need for increased journalistic integrity and trust.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey is one of my favorite business books, as it explains in great detail how brands can build or repair trust with their audiences — and how we can do the same, as individuals. It has helped me immensely when it comes to helping clients become more trustworthy through aligning their values with their actions. It has also inspired me to write a book about congruent leadership, since I want to create a body of work that is as helpful to readers as Stephen Covey has been to me.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When I was covering Dallas County for The Des Moines Register, I ended up covering the Kari Engholm case. Essentially Kari Engholm was a hospital CEO who had switched up her daycare routine with her husband one morning. So she had the baby instead of the child, and he had the child instead of the baby. Normally, she dropped off the older child at daycare every morning. Well, this particular morning, she had the baby and had to be at an early morning meeting. God knows how much sleep she got. But she ended up driving straight to work on autopilot, because the toddler wasn’t in the backseat chattering away. She stayed all the way through the end of the day, skipped lunch, and came out to the car at the end of her day, in the middle of the summer, and found her baby had died in the back of her car. She faced horrible criminal charges and was held up by many as an example of why women can’t be good executives and moms. And I had to cover all of it, including the trial.

It was in covering that story I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I was too emotionally affected by it, and I didn’t know how to maintain respect for humanity and continue to do that job. There had already been a number of other crimes I’d reported on that were awful and dark. But I just didn’t feel good about going around and knocking on the doors of people that knew Kari Engholm and asking what they thought about her. I mean, it was just awful.

But it led me to have the ultimate respect for journalists who can do that kind of reporting, keep their heads on straight and not be emotionally crushed by it — because I wasn’t one of them. It also made me very aware, for the first time in my life, how much people objectify other people in the news because people were actually betting on what would happen to her — like they were legit taking bets on whether or not she was going to be sentenced. And meanwhile I got to know her and her family, and they were devastated.

I went to their house for Christmas and they had all of the kid’s stockings on the mantle, plus the tiny stocking of the baby who died. Thinking about it now still makes me cry. This is a person who is never going to be the same again. Nobody could ever punish her the way she will punish herself forever. Her life is never going to be the same. Her marriage will never be the same. Nothing in her life will ever be the same. But people were piling on her misery, making an example of her and taking bets about her future. So I became more acutely aware of the sinister side of the media, as it relates to people’s dark nature and interest in tearing other people down, and I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it. It was just rotten.

Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away, you learned from it?

Once, when I was a young reporter at The Des Moines Register, I was asked to cover a high-profile funeral. I showed up to the well-attended funeral like I would for any other assignment: with a notepad and pen in hand, armed and ready to take notes. What I didn’t think through was that taking notes with a pen and pad during a funeral is a surefire way to attract the glares of anyone in your vicinity. So I was in the church scribbling notes on a notepad and getting a lot of negative attention.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am writing a book on congruent leadership, which aligns with my overall mission to reflect, self-correct and attract similar people. I truly believe if the individuals who are leading the businesses of today and tomorrow remain as devoted to self-improvement and self-awareness as they are to serving both their end-users and employees, we can change the world.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

As leaders, we need to take care of ourselves — and find the time to do it. I know it’s harder than it sounds, believe me. But taking care of yourself can boost your creativity and, ultimately, improve your work performance. After all, when you’re surviving on coffee pot fumes, looking like a strung out cartoon cat and operating with a brain that sounds like a broken TV from the ’70s, no one benefits.

So set aside five minutes each day to do something for yourself that centers you. Schedule regular check-ins with yourself to check yourself before you wreck yourself, and make time for things that bring you joy and refill your cup with life, laughter and gratitude.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll, only 36% of Americans trust the mass media. This is disheartening. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?

1. Separate Objective Reporting from Opinion: Clearly distinguish news stories from opinions, commentary and sponsored content, and avoid letting the outlet’s high-profile opinion leaders brand an outlet as “left” or “right,” which can damage the trust of large segments of the population.

2. Present Unbiased Information: Don’t treat people as if they can’t be trusted to interpret the facts and information presented accurately by telling them what to think of the news. Demonstrate you respect them by sharing unbiased resources and statistics without a slant, and always remain neutral in tone.

3. Make Resources, Research and Unedited Interviews Available: Make additional background information, reporting and/or research available to the public, including unedited interviews. Provide objective statistics and scientific sources without interpreting them through a specific lens or using them selectively to reinforce a narrative or point of view.

4. Avoid Censorship at All Costs: Avoid the appearance of censorship at all costs, whether of the news, information, points of view, or statistics. This can lead to distrust due to the lack of transparency.

5. Prioritize Accuracy Over Speed and Make Visible Corrections: Always prioritize accuracy over speed, when it comes to reporting, to ensure the initial story is as complete and airtight as possible. But, when mistakes inevitably happen, make quick and visible corrections.

What are a few things that ordinary news consumers can do to identify disinformation, and help to prevent its dissemination?

It’s important to diversify your news sources to ensure you are not only consuming news from outlets whose inherent biases match your own, but also from sources that sometimes challenge your worldview. If you consume news from a wide variety of outlets that are knowingly or unknowingly spinning the news in different directions, based on their socio-political leanings, you can ensure you are receiving a more holistic point of view you can triangulate into your own opinions about the truth.

So I’m a fan of consuming news sources that span a wider spectrum than you would normally be comfortable consuming, to help you decide which parts of the news ring true or resonate with you, rather than just automatically reposting something that is incendiary and backs up your pre-existing biases. In other words, check your outrage with a cross-section of news outlets before sharing or reposting something.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Know why you’re doing this. I had to decide whether to start my own agency when my solo PR consulting business grew faster than my workdays could. I either had to start turning business away or go big. I’d left some of the biggest agencies in the world because I wasn’t thrilled with the toxic and competitive cultures of many firms, so I decided to try to build something different. In other words, I created the agency I always wanted to work for, which was — and still is — my mission.

2. Determine if you love what you do too much to give it up. Realistically, after you start an agency, you won’t be practicing your craft anymore. If you love copywriting or graphic design, for example, and you start a copywriting or design agency, you likely won’t be doing that anymore at a certain point. Instead, you’ll be running a business that offers the services you once did — and probably focusing primarily on business development, hiring and budgets.

3. Being a founder is like being a parent to your brand. As a founder, you are inherent to the DNA of your company. That means it’s your job to nurture the brand and instill it with the values you want it to embody until it blooms into the actualization of your mission and value proposition. Much like being a parent, agency ownership requires a balance between selfless dedication and self-care. The agency’s success ultimately depends on your ability to care for yourself as well as others.

4. Remember, leadership is top-down. Your company culture ultimately starts — and stops — with you. As a leader, you set the tone for literally everything your company does by imparting your vision, beliefs, values, habits, and attitude to your team. Anything you are working on personally and don’t consider a strength will also be passed on — and your team will reflect those positive traits or missteps back to you tenfold. It’s important to remember that no one is perfect, but self-correcting as often and quickly as possible will help ensure your company is more impactful.

5. Examine your passion: Is it unquenchable? You know how people often tell artists to only be artists if they can’t do anything else? Like if you want to be a screenplay writer, actor, novelist, musician, or painter, you shouldn’t make that your profession because you expect to make money. You should choose it because there’s nothing else in the world you can do to be happy. It has to be the number one thing you want to do in life, and if you can’t do that thing, you’re going to feel like you wasted your life.

You have to have the same level of passion for starting an agency that you would if you were an artist. You have to be that committed and willing to make the sacrifices it takes. That’s the level of passion you have to have to start an agency, because it will probably not be profitable for a long time and you won’t sleep much. You’re going to sacrifice a lot of things personally. So, if this isn’t the number one thing in your life — or a close number two — it’s probably not for you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In my fantasy world, if I had the capital, I would start a media outlet that’s strictly committed to objective reporting and doesn’t serve one side of the aisle or the other. One that did its best to present facts without spinning them. An outlet that wouldn’t cow-tow to advertisers or political influence and would just report the news like it is so nobody feels worried that it’s secretly propaganda from somewhere.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow Trust Relations on Instagram @trustrelations, on Twitter at @TrustPRelations, on Facebook at @trustrelations, and on LinkedIn at Trust Relations. My personal LinkedIn is April White.

Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!

April White of Trust Relations On 5 Steps We Can Take To Win Back Trust In Journalism was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.