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.

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!

We are ashamed but must accept that politics eats its young

Like many people, I was deeply moved by Kevin Rudd’s final press conference this week.  I held my breath each time he paused, silently willing him to hold it together.  I shed a tear when his voice trembled.  And I also felt ashamed to be excited by the momentousness of the occasion, when I could see in High Definition the immense anguish it had wrought upon a man of faith and conviction, who was clearly loved by his wife and family.

Kevin Rudd’s world changed irrevocably in a matter of hours.  That is the nature of politics – it is a huge and relentless beast, constantly in motion and oblivious to good intentions, time-honoured philosophies and the frailties of humankind.  It hungrily and indiscriminately consumes hours, words and souls, all in the name of public good.

Some members of the commentariat have indulged in confected rage over Rudd’s treatment by “faceless apparatchiks”.

This is not so much because of empathy for Rudd, but because they feel affronted by the ruthless installation of an unelected Prime Minister purely in order to win the next election.  This indignation is quite amusing to those who have worked within party machines.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party cannot serve its electorate without first winning and then holding the Treasury benches.  As my teenage daughter would say, “well, duh!!”

Rudd was not so much a victim of his party, but of politics itself.  It is the undeniable preoccupation of any incumbent side to want to retain government and of the other side to wrench it from the incumbent’s grip.  It is the undeniable preoccupation of the fourth estate to convey this struggle with as much drama as possible, while securing stories (or scalps) that differentiate them from their competitors.

Therefore the political beast can best be illustrated as something conjured by Dante.  It is the sum of its many parts: politicans, parties, the parliament and media.   Perhaps the irate journalists need to look in the mirror before they accuse others of having Rudd’s blood on their hands.

In conclusion, I want to say that I’ve been thinking about others who’ve been mauled by the political beast.  Whether they first taunted the creature is another question altogether.

Does anyone ever spare a thought for Godwin Grech?  I was distressed to hear recently that he is still hospitalized and that his house and possessions have been auctioned off.

I feel sad for people like John Brogden and Nick Sherry who will always carry the scars of their encounter with the beast.

And relieved that others like Grahame Morris and Cheryl Kernot survived their skirmishes relatively unscathed.

And finally I am in awe of people like Lindsay Tanner and Geoff Gallop, who have resolutely stood before the slavering creature, stared into its red maw, and then calmly walked away.

Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity

I have a little theory that needs to be refined.  So I encourage you, dear reader, to comment and correct me.

My theory is that the advent of by-lines and the cult of celebrity have irrevocably changed the nature of democracy in Australia.

When I moved to chilly Canberra to be a neophyte press secretary in the 80s, not every journalist had a by-line.  That honour was bestowed only upon senior reporters and feature writers.  Most Canberra journalists were reporters in the truest sense.  They were required to succinctly, accurately and anonymously report on newsworthy matters of the day.

While most journalists I know have a strong point of view, in those days they were proud of the objectivity they displayed in their work.  Their saw their role as information providers, and had faith in the public reaching their own informed views about the matters that were important to them.

My middle-aged memory fails me when I try to pinpoint the turning point – when journalists became participants in, rather than reporters of, the political process.  But I have no doubt that the advent of the by-line was a contributing factor.

When you are a Canberra operative you tend to notice these things, such as the infectious “title inflation” that has been going on in the print media.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, political reporters clamoured just to get a by-line.  Earlier this decade there was fierce competition to see who could become “senior” or “chief” political reporter.  Nowadays, you’re nobody unless you’re a “political editor” for your newspaper.  Even the neophyte political pundit Peter Van Onselen has managed to procure the title of “Contributing Editor”.

My recollection of the advent of the by-line in Australian print media was that it coincided with the emergence of 24-hour television news in Australia, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer and his CNN coverage of the first Gulf War in Kuwait.  This was perhaps the first time that a serious journalist (as opposed to a glamorous newsreader or TV show host) had become a celebrity in Australian homes.  At the same time, both Laurie Oakes and Peter Harvey’s celebrity status began to rise outside of Canberra political circles.  Oakes was the man of substance, getting the leaks and interviews that no-one else could.  Harvey was The Voice intoning, “Peter Harvey, Canberra” on Australian families’ television news each evening.   Although not based in Canberra, Andrew Olle and Jana Wendt are two other examples that spring to mind.

Hence the cult of celebrity began to infiltrate, and inextricably change, the reporting of Australian politics.

The cult of celebrity emerged hand in hand with reality television.  People became famous simply for being famous, with Big Brother and Idol winners, along with hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton, being the epitome of this phenomenon.

It’s my recollection that political journalists took this new paradigm much more seriously to heart.  With the advent of the byline and a new focus on celebrity reporters, I remember several Canberra journalists saying that they had taken on a didactic role.  Rather than simply reporting political matters and leaving the public to reach their own conclusions, these journalists began to see their role as having to “teach” the public about the pros and cons of certain political positions and policies.

Certainly one could argue that there is just as much need for teachers to be objective about the information they convey.  However, I believe that the shift from journalists as reporters to teachers was accompanied by a growing self-belief that political journalists know more and therefore know better than Joe Public.  This mind-shift has created the way for journalists’ personal views to creep into their work.

Thus began the infiltration of opinion into political reportage.   Over time, the lines have increasingly become blurred between political reporting and opinion masquerading as analysis.  Canberra practitioners see these comments in the context of the journalist’s opinions and biases, but the everyday newspaper reader and television watcher does not.   Many, and particularly the politically disengaged, tend to take the information provided by their favoured media outlet, or celebrity journalists, as gospel.  This is an unacknowledged but serious distortion in Australian democracy.

Today, there seem to be no bounds to the excesses and influence of some celebrity journalists.  The perceived importance of their opinions has become so inflated that television programs now offer “analysis” in the form of high profile political journalists interviewing or chatting to each other.

I hasten to add that I am not tarring all famous journalists with the didactic brush.  Some have begrudgingly accepted their higher public profiles and treated the responsibility with the solemnity and objectivity that it demands.

Others have become addicted to influence and are now willing participants in Australian politics.  They are the favoured recipients of regular partisan leaks.  Or they willingly beat up or play down speculative matters designed specifically to destabilise opponents or even colleagues.   And most are prepared to willingly hunt with the pack to build up or tear down a politician just for sport.

It’s a truism that voters get the government they deserve.  But what did we do to deserve journalists who truly believe their task is to not inform but to guide us?  Unfortunately we are all disenfranchised when it comes to the participatory role that celebrity journalists now play in Australian democracy.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

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