Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.

What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?

Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.

Click here to read more…

Ooops Greenpeace!

This week I attended a public affairs conference entitled True Spin, held by the Walkleys/MEAA.

There were conflicts, inconsistencies and knowledge gaps that struck me during the presentations at the conference, but one thing that consistently stood out was the consensus that Shell had badly dealt with Greepeace’s Let’s Go! arctic campaign.

Disappointingly, while several presenters were happy to pile on Shell for their lack of issues management savvy, not one suggested a course of action that could have proved successful for Shell.

I have to admit that the answer does not come easily to me either, which is why I’m less prepared to damn Shell for their inadequacy.

Since then I’ve been pondering what I would have done, and have come to the conclusion that I would have advised Shell to take out full page ads with the text provided below, backed up by a good old fashioned media release that includes a Shell estimate of how much a slick website like that would have cost to establish and run.

I chose MSM rather than social media because corporate messages on Facebook and particularly Twitter can be too easily highjacked: there’s a greater chance that your message will remain undiluted if it’s distributed by the mainstream media via new media platforms than if you do it yourself.

Similarly, the call to action is through email and not Facebook or Twitter where the message can quickly be highjacked and distorted.

So, this is the text of the full page I think Shell should have placed. What do you think they should have done?

Did I miss the zombie apocalypse?

Here’s my latest piece at The King’s Tribune

I must have missed that moment when we relinquished our brains. You know, that moment when we scooped out the gelatinous orbs that give us independent thought and popped them into a bin for collection. That didn’t happen, you say?

Well then, did I miss the zombie apocalypse? Was I in a coma while ghouls shuffled about and munched on our cerebral cortexes? No? Then how else to explain why we rely so much on the media to do our thinking these days, particularly when it comes to politics?

Contemporary political news is now pitched in a way that suggests, instead of thinking for ourselves, we’ve abrogated our scrutiny of political policies and events for the opinions of journalists. Every newspaper, radio program, tv show and online forum that covers Australian politics and current affairs places an inordinate emphasis on what celebrity and wannabe celebrity journalists “think” about political events.

Click here to keep reading…..

A surprising omission from Tingle

I was disappointed by Laura Tingle on Friday. Tingle is one of the few journalists writing from the Canberra Press Gallery that we usually can depend upon to be consistently rigorous in research, forensic in analysis and objective in reporting.

There was however a piece of information missing from her Canberra Observed column that surprised me.

Tingle was commenting on the poor prospects for long-term policy debates due to distractions such as the obsession with “process” or insider stories rather than “outcomes” stories.

She held aloft as an example the case of Jillian Broadbent AO, the esteemed business woman who chaired an expert panel looking into investment for clean energy.

An eminent panel headed by Jillian Broadbent reported to the government this week on the structural problems of getting investment in clean energy.

Broadbent is a member of the Reserve Bank board (appointed by the Howard government), and a director of ASX Ltd and Woolworths. Such an obvious Labor stooge, in fact, that the Coalition accused her of engaging in “partisan activity and partisan criticism” simply for observing that the Coalition “haven’t been very interested in speaking to me, despite my preparedness to brief them”.

Anyone trying to contribute to the current public policy debate, as opposed to anticipating where political fortunes might go next, is smeared in the process.

Any reasonable reader would conclude from this analysis that the Coalition had snubbed and smeared an experienced and independent business leader simply because she wanted to brief them on clean energy investment.

However, Broadbent has an important and relevant role that Tingle did not include in her column. Broadbent is in fact Chair of the Government’s $10bn Clean Energy Finance Corporation, an entity that the Coalition has vowed to scrap on the attainment of government. So why would the Coalition agree to a briefing from the head of such an organisation?

Broadbent chaired the expert review in her capacity as chair of CEFC. In fact, it is called the Chair’s Review in the media release which announced it:

The establishment of the Chair’s Review is intended to assist the Government in framing the enabling legislation, associated instruments and determining what operational issues can be left to the CEFC’s Board after the corporation has been established. Following consideration of the Chair’s Review, the Government will introduce legislation for the establishment of the Corporation in sufficient time to allow the CEFC to fully develop its systems and products before it commences operations from 2013-14.

Amongst other things, the Chair’s Review ultimately recommended ways to prevent, or at least make extremely difficult, the Coalition’s scrapping of the CEFC. It’s hardly surprising then that the Coalition would be disinclined to receive a briefing from Broadbent.

So, in reality, that which was depicted by Tingle as the smearing and snubbing of a dispassionate expert was in fact pragmatic politics.

Politically, there was nothing for the Coalition to gain from meeting with Broadbent. Any such meeting would have sent mixed messages and could have been beaten up by the media as hypocrisy or potential wavering on the part of the Opposition.

By agreeing to chair a government entity, Ms Broadbent has, in fact, “taken a side” and opened herself to reasonable criticism of being partisan. Other business leaders who’ve taken on government-appointed roles have suffered the same fate; although I hasten to add, not all have been tarred with the partisan brush.

None of this was mentioned by Tingle yesterday. In fact the additional contextual information would have diminished the impact of the example she was making of the Coalition’s treatment of Broadbent.

I raised this omission with Tingle on Twitter. She said I was being deliberately obtuse and missing her broader point. In fact, I agree with Tingle’s broader point – that political inside gossip and smears attract more attention and divert resources from considered reporting of political outcomes. It was the selective information used to illustrate a point that troubled me.

The prickly nature of our Twitter exchange prevented me from asking Tingle why she did omit the fact that Broadbent is chair of the CEFC.

Not all spin doctors use their powers for evil

Being an effective communicator is a lot like having the Force – you can either use your power for good or evil. To illustrate, I’d suggest that JFK and Martin Luther King Jr used their power for good. I would place Anthony Robbins and the Shopping Television Network at the other end of the spectrum (yes, my definition of evil is non-Catholic to say the least).

Others would place the dreaded spin doctor (or public relations practitioner) in the same quadrant as the insistent voice telling you to call with your credit card details right now to get not one, but three pedi-eggs for the price of one.

I will state up front that I am a communications (ie. PR) professional, and have plied my trade for over 20 years. My training is in communications theory and practice, which is not the same thing as journalism. Yes, I learned how to write in a clear and (hopefully) compelling fashion. I also learned how people pay attention, listen and learn. I understand the relationship between people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions and how these ultimately shape behaviour.

This knowledge is stock in trade for communications professionals. We build strategies from these robust theories to help people and organisations effectively communicate with their audiences.

Much of this communication is done for good not evil. Sometimes the messages help people find or use something, or to be safe, or informed about their rights and entitlements. For example US authorities look at Australia’s seat-belt wearing rate with envy and attribute our success to a combination of regulation and effective communication.

These theories and strategies are changing over time to keep pace with the evolving nature of communications and how people interact with it.

However, journalistic distrust of the communications profession does not appear to have changed at all. I can remember in the 80s, when working as a novice media adviser in Canberra, I quickly learned not to tell journalists that my background was in PR. It was made crystal clear to me that PR flacks were considered to be much further down the credibility chain than media hacks.

Ironically, it seems that today the prevalence of former journalists in the role of media adviser and resulting obsession with the 24/7 news cycle has done more to put the spin doctor role into disrepute than any shonky PR type might have done.

I was reminded of this by a newspaper story today on government “spin doctors” that was retweeted by a couple of reputable journalists on Twitter. What struck me was the amount of unbridled spin in the article about spin.

The article authoritatively tells us that each state and territory, as well as the federal government, employs a minimum of several hundred people dedicated solely to generating the best possible angle on stories for public consumption, that taxpayers fund an army of at least 3000 media advisers employed to “spin” political lines and that public servants are hired to craft messages and keep the secrets for governments and their departments.

There are two spins clearly at work here. One is that governments are avoiding public scrutiny by being profligate in their employment of communications personnel. That is a fair point from a political and newsworthiness perspective. However the other implication is that any communications professional working in government is devoted to distortion or corruption of the message. This allegation is patently untrue and an insult to the hard-working communicators in the many government departments around the country.

I realise there is an uneasy relationship between the media and its news sources these days. There is incredible pressure on journalists to find unique and compelling stories to maintain sales and keep advertisers happy.

Being students of human behaviour, some communications professionals have used this to the advantage of their clients but perhaps at a cost to their own credibility.

I’m not suggesting that all communications professionals are angels. On the contrary, it can be very tempting to use the Force for less-than-good deeds.

All I ask is that next time the sobriquet “spin doctor” is flung at a communications professional, take a moment to check who it is that is really using their communications knowledge for nefarious means.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.

New media prejudice based on fear of the unknown

It’s human nature to dislike, even hate, what we fear and to fear that which is foreign to us. These drivers underpin many of the entrenched prejudices that exist in this world, to humanity’s great shame and dismay. Prejudice and its implications can occur on a grand scale or at the micro level. The most profound cast a shadow over people’s gender, sexuality, colour and religion.

At the micro level it may be the cut of your suit, the ink on your skin or even the way you speak that fans the embers of ignorance into the flames of prejudice. While these biases are nothing compared to the ones mentioned above, they still exist and should be challenged.

Well, at least that’s what we always say about prejudice – that it should be challenged. Perhaps it’s more a matter of deconstructing prejudice through personal experience. Attitudes are very hard to shift, but they can be altered with knowledge gained through first hand experience. There are many (but clearly not enough) examples of people relinquishing their prejudices once the unknown becomes the personally known, either through a friend or relative coming out, or by getting to know someone of a different colour or religion.

It’s the micro level of prejudice that I’ve pondered since attending the Media140 social media conference last month. Quite a number of mainstream media journalists participated in panel discussions and I was struck by the disdainful way several referred to social media platforms. One explained that they didn’t often tweet but monitored the Twitter stream to plunder it for stories. Another said they used Twitter mostly to publicise their own stories. At one point in the discussion, Facebook was summarily dismissed as being the place where you post your holiday snaps to satisfy the extended family.

It occurred to me then that many working journalists just don’t get social media and it may be for this reason that they’ve formed negative attitudes toward it. Apart from the few journalists who actively blog and engage in conversations on Twitter, it seems that many mainstream journalists see social media as a fad, but nevertheless a potential threat in the identification and reporting of news. I’m not suggesting they’re luddites, but that their unwillingness to personally experience these online phenomena has created a negatively biased perception.

I suppose I could challenge this prejudice by saying that the world has changed and people are no longer using the old ways to shop, talk, promote, research, learn, share, celebrate or mourn. I could show how models for business, advocacy and information exchange are constantly mutating in an effort to keep pace. Or even point to the fact that 54% of Fortune 100 companies have a presence on Twitter and 29% are on Facebook.

I could challenge the prejudice by showing that Australians in particular have embraced social media; that 70% of all Australian internet users visit social networking sites, and we also spend more time on these sites than our overseas online colleagues.

I could point to Facebook as another case in point. It’s not just a place for happy snaps but inhabited and regularly used not only by individuals but hundreds of thousands of businesses. Facebook has 500 million members who spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook pages. Over 9 million people on Facebook are Australians, and these are not just kids sharing fart jokes or embarrassing photos; 43.4% of all Australians on Facebook are aged 26 to 44. The communities that exist on Facebook are a marketer’s dream. Any kind of demographic or interest group can be reached cheaply and on a targeted basis using Facebook ads. Facebook is also used by NGOs, advocates, companies and individuals to build communities of support or loyal customer followings that would otherwise be impossible to create or maintain.

Sadly, any challenge would not be enough. There is no way to understand social media platforms “in theory”. Understanding can only be gained through direct experience. Mainstream journalists will never get Twitter until they actively join one of the many communities that exist in the Twitterverse. They can’t just monitor the Twitter stream or broadcast into it but truly engage in conversations as they would with friends at the pub or a dinner party to understand the dynamics and attraction of this medium. Twitter is not just about politics either; its communities are numerous and incredibly diverse. For my part, I participate in Twitter communities that are interested in politics, social media, science fiction on TV and in films, fashion and rugby league.

The reality is that social media is not a fad, it won’t fade away and its influence on the corporate, policy and political worlds will grow even more with time. Mainstream media journalists would know this, and perhaps even accept it, if they engaged fully with social media platforms and joined with the rest of us in exploring their seemingly limitless potential for information, creativity, relationships and dialogue.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed

Refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.

This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.

I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)

My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.

This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.

Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.

This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.

Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?

The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

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