One of the common causes of conflict between journalists and companies that attempt to engage them is the definition of the word ‘deadline’.
The word deadline originated during the US Civil War apparently. I’ve dug around and found several references to this and the explanation seems plausible so I’m going with it. (I don’t have time to research Congressional Papers from 1864 to see if it did actually turn up there first as is alleged).
The short story of the origin of the word goes like this.
When soldiers were captured in the war they were penned into an area with whatever simple fencing materials were around – if any. Around the outside of the perimeter of the fence was drawn a line in the dirt. Captives were told (and it was demonstrated) that if they climbed the fence and crossed the line – they would be shot and killed. Prisoners very quickly began to refer to this as the dead line.
From the Civil War the word ‘deadline’ came to describe other situations where the impact of hitting or exceeding the dead line was of equal metaphoric importance. In particular it mostly referred to a point in a timeline that wasn’t to be exceeded.
The media were one of the first industries to adopt it – and it’s stuck for a number of reasons.
First, news is news while it’s new. And news sells. Old news is a boring repeat of someone else’s news. It doesn’t sell. So there’s a very real economic imperative that comes with getting news out on time, every time.
Failure to do so reduces readership, impacts the brand of a media outlet which in turn costs them advertisers who largely fund commercial news organisations. In today’s world if you’re late or unreliable with news delivery, then market gaps are created which are quickly filled by other, often online, sources.
Second, print runs are ‘booked’ into printing press runs. Printing presses can’t afford to be idle. They are expensive pieces of capital equipment and if they’re not running they lose money. For this reason many printing presses run around the clock and woe betide a publisher that delivers their print files late. There can be massive financial penalties for holding a print press up – not to mention the knock-on effect that is created with distribution networks.
Missing deadlines for TV and radio is just as bad. If a deadline isn’t met then there is a mad scurry to fill airtime with last minute content. No-one wants to have a blank screen or white noise on their station.
Now contrast a journalist’s view of a deadline with most businesses views of a deadline.
In most cases business people can renegotiate deadlines on an almost continuous basis with little impact. How often do we reschedule a business meeting at the last minute or ask for a bit more time on a report? Business is built on trading time for value essentially. We’re used to time being elastic. We’re also used to both parties in business understanding that deadlines can move. Sure there can be a cost or an inconvenience – but it’s not the end of the world usually.
So you can imagine what happens sometimes when a journalist has a deadline and a business spokesperson says they will meet it – but doesn’t. The journalist, who was relying on your content is about to cross the point where they will be metaphorically shot by their editor, Civil War style. It can be career limiting to be the journalist that doesn’t meet their deadlines.
Where does that leave the company that failed to meet the deadline or tried to negotiate more time at the last minute (not appreciating the mechanics of how news is produced). Well, at best they probably won’t get their phone calls answered for a very long time. At worst, the journalist will scramble to find whatever they can write about the company that let them down – and let’s just say that often the easiest information to find is not the most flattering. Or they will ring a company’s competitor and see if they can fill in the missing content.
So – when your PR agency or a journalist has let you know what a media deadline is – make sure you’re comfortable meeting it, or give plenty of notice to all parties if it looks like you can’t make it. You will live to fight another day and the journalist will still have options to find an alternate story,