Come in Spinner: How PR leans with the wind

At the recent Adelaide Writers’ Week panel discussion on The Future of Quality Journalism there were two moments when the audience and the panel had remarkable experiences.

The panel comprised historian and ABC host, Michael Cathcart; the authors Malcolm Knox and Alice Pung; and the ABC’s Ian Townshend.

The first moment came, after the boys had been talking non-stop for most of the session, when the Chair asked for a comment from Alice Pung. Alice said the panel and the audience might be surprised to learn what the people she knew thought quality journalism was. Drawing from her Cambodian emigrant and western suburbs background she said that the people who worked with her father always turned to one journalist – Andrew Bolt – to interpret the world. The second came when an audience member asked “how do you define quality journalism?”  Both comment and question were greeted with an eerie silence and then lots of rapid chatter. The general conclusions – you know quality journalism when you see it and sometimes it’s safer to just ignore the western suburbs refugee view if what they say is inconvenient.

Ultimately the problem is that the media (including crikey although partly excluding the ABC) is not about quality journalism but seeking to make a profit. How it does was summed up in 1904 by the US sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who said in The Theory of Business Enterprise: “The successful magazine writers are those who follow the taste of the class to whom they speak, in any aberration (fad, mannerism, or misapprehension) and in any shortcoming or insight or force which may beset that class.”

Successful PR doesn’t seek to manipulate the media, rather it leans with the wind and tailors its media contributions to the lifestyle and socio-economic segment a media outlet targets to win advertising.

For instance, if you want to get a story into Australia’s best newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, you do one of two things: offer them a free op ed piece which reinforces their conventional wisdom; or, frame your story about how whatever is being talked about will diminish/enhance profitability/productivity/international competitiveness. Thus, any story claiming a new tax or regulation will drive CEOs and companies overseas and destroy our competitiveness will get a run – despite the fact that business leaders have been making the same claims since a few people started to say young children shouldn’t be working in mines.

However, unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom can sometimes be amusing. At the height of the GFC when doubts were raised about the solvency of Central European and Baltic States the AFR quoted a Royal Bank of Scotland economist saying the only way the problems could be solved was by more de-regulation, more privatisation and more cuts in government spending. Astonishingly the economist wasn’t asked the obvious question: if this formula works so well why has your bank just been nationalised?

It’s even easier with other media outlets – sports links for the Herald-Sun or the Telegraph; crocodiles for the Northern Territory News; and, for The Australia the dangers of the nanny state or why Tony Abbott will win the next four elections.

According to Daniel Boorstin in The Image (1969) Benjamin Franklin’s newspapers regularly reported that there “was no news today” because the packet had not arrived on the boat from England. Today nobody says there is no news and the hole is filled by a combination of happenings, what people say and things which appeal to particular reader segments.

A former colleague, Lelde McCoy, once gave a speech to health promotion staff, listing an A to Z of media relations and management tactics which help you craft the messages which match the media outlet style and fill the holes. They ranged through creating awards, competitions, creating committees (the conservatives have learnt well from the Stalinist apparatchiks in this area), demonstrations, hotlines, junkets for visiting experts, research studies and think tanks.

The list is a great teaching guide for young PR practitioners but it is also an interesting guide to deconstructing what’s in the media and why. Indeed – using the old principle of cui bono? – whenever you see an award, a survey result or a new committee set up, the first question you should ask is who benefits?

The organisation which placed it – just as likely to be a not-for-profit with an agenda as a business group with an agenda – may have placed it for a reason bu they couldn’t have done so unless the story leaned with the wind and met the media outlet’s demographic targeting needs.