One of the most important developments in television news in nearly 20 years is underway in the US, but you might not even know it. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcasting giant, has been quietly building Al Jazeera America, the first major US news channel since Fox News and MSNBC launched in the mid-1990s.
Having acquired the network infrastructure with its $500 million purchase of Al Gore’s Current TV in January, Al Jazeera has hired nearly 700 employees, including CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, and is planning to open a dozen US news bureaus. Al Jazeera America, which is scheduled to launch on August 20, says it will distinguish itself by focusing on in-depth reporting of stories that many Americans say they don’t get from the current slate of news channels.
Compared to the hefty corporate investment, the PR push has been minimal. There have been press releases and meetings with top editorial boards but, overall, Al Jazeera has been conservative in promoting the new channel. This makes sense. Although the network certainly wants to attract a broad audience, there is risk associated with this venture. Most Americans first heard of Al Jazeera in 2001, when it broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden following the September 11th terrorist attacks. It’s not unrealistic to think many potential viewers will associate the name with that event. Others will worry that Al Jazeera will attempt to push certain ideological agendas. Management’s focus now should be on building a fully fledged news operation with a keen understanding of what American viewers are looking for.
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Al Jazeera, whose ambitious plans may alter the American landscape of network news.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Show, don’t tell. When something is risky or untested, let the product speak for itself. For Al Jazeera, there is little to be gained by hyping the channel prior to launch. Doing so will inevitably invite criticism that the network can’t answer yet. Instead, Al Jazeera America should keep on keeping on: staying in the press by hiring top talent, opening news bureaus, and being selective about the interviews it does. Bring out the PR bells and whistles once the channel is up and running.