Doom sells papers, but why is it always at the expense of good news, asks Malcolm Walker
Why are we so addicted to bad news rather than good? And why do we give so much more credence to unauthorised leaks than to carefully drafted and vetted press releases?
In some ways I suppose it is lucky that we do have a taste for doom and gloom. Because in the absence of overpopulation, global warming, ironically rising fuel bills, the euro crisis, unemployment, threats of depression, protest movements, wars, terrorism, neglect of the elderly and dodgy ministerial advisers, there might be nothing left to fill the newspapers apart from PR-fuelled grocery price wars.
But it is a bias that can make life a bit frustrating for those of us who are essentially in the good news business. Everyone expresses amazement when I point out that Iceland has increased its profits in 36 out of the 37 years I have been in charge. Yet a company which makes a profit warning will find that it is etched on memories forever, and that it will take years before it again achieves a mention that does not include the adjective “troubled”.
This spring I joined the successful Iceland Everest Expedition, to almost universal indifference. The only time we made it to a single front page was when a lorry crash made it look like we might have to call the whole thing off. My lugubrious PR adviser did tell me that he might secure a few more column inches if I got killed in the attempt, but I had to inform him, with regret, that this went far beyond the limits of what I was prepared to do for publicity.
In the last few weeks Iceland has put out two genuinely good news releases. One was on our inflation-busting 6.5% pay award which, to general incredulity, makes Iceland’s retail staff the second best paid on the high street. The other marked our passing of the £1 million mark in fundraising for our charity of the year, Alzheimer’s Research UK. Neither was deemed of any real interest outside the always comprehensive pages of Retail Week.
The appetite for leaks, on the other hand, is almost insatiable. Nearly every weekend for what seems like months now thousands of trees have been sacrificed to print updates from nameless sources on the progress of Landsbanki’s and Glitnir’s planned sale of their Iceland shares. No matter that many of these stories were entirely inaccurate; or that they concerned a private company with just seven shareholders and no debt, which should surely limit our potential interest to outsiders.
Does it matter? Yes, because it unsettles our hard-working staff and loyal customers, most of whom don’t read the City pages but do hear exaggerated third-hand rumours based on their stories.
Despite this, the good news keeps coming, as surveys report that Iceland and the discounters are increasing their market share at the expense of the big four supermarket retailers. Do we get a pat on the back for our brilliant strategic positioning and superb management? No, we are told that we just happen to be in the right place as consumers trade down.
Would we absolved from blame and permitted to point out adverse market conditions if our sales were going the other way? Of course not, it would be management’s fault and we would be ridiculed for our pathetic “excuses”.
I know life’s not meant to be fair, but wouldn’t it be nice, every now and then, to turn the page and read a positive news story that gave a little credit to those who made the good things happen?