Come in Spinner: Media relations – from the impossible to the ridiculously easy

Back in the 1970s the legendary journalist and editor Richard L’Estrange (commonly known as Dick the Odd) described the then Victorian Parliamentary Press Gallery as ‘a club’. He wasn’t envisaging a cosy club where one sat, dined and drank but more the paleolithic weapon of choice sort of club.

Richard’s argument was not just that the Gallery operated around a set of conventional wisdoms about Victorian politics and how it should be reported, but that it also ‘clubbed to death’ story ideas outside the ruling consensus. Not that the Gallery was entirely to blame because it was then a different world with different rhythms. For instance, Victorian Premier Dick Hamer, media staff would do an early morning story drop to The Herald which usually ran the story on  page one and set the media agenda until the next morning. When Sir Henry Bolte was Premier it was even cosier and the chapter in Peter Blazey’s book, Bolte: a political biography (Jacaranda, 1972) on a Bolte press conference with the Gallery is a revealing and amusing contribution to Australian political history.

But Victorian politics started to get interesting, new faces appeared in the Gallery and old faces responded to changing times and the club fell apart. But some 40 years later, despite all the changes in the media, it is striking that the media relations part of public relations is still grappling with the same problem – how to operate in a mainstream media environment where selling in stories is either impossible or ridiculously easy.

The problem is exemplified by the comments received about the possibility of a new narrative for Julia Gillard and the consistent theme they evoked from fellow PR people – a good idea but a new narrative is only possible in the mainstream media if it fits the existing conventional wisdom.

So what’s easy for PR people with media relations and what’s hard in such an environment. The Craig Thomson story has been easy for his opponents. For a start it is now moot as to whether he can be defamed but more importantly the HSU story has become the Thomson Gillard Government majority story with a minor walk on part for Michael Williamson. Even Crikey has been dismissive of alternative narratives about the story but, while some of those do seem to be far-fetched conspiracies, the different attention given to them is dramatic. There is only one story and everything else – other than running out of the House or the recollections of sex workers – is given much less emphasis. The Thomson story is a big story by any yardstick although there are signs that the media’s normal short attention span might be producing some boredom amongst themselves as well as the public.

However, the ease and difficulty of achieving coverage is better illustrated by classes of stories.

For instance any story about job losses at a company, estimates of increases in costs of anything, the unintended consequences of regulation or the damaging impact of taxes can always be relied on to get good run. Conversely, stories about overall employment growth or the less than apocalyptic impact of a tax change (GST for example) are harder to push. The US-Australian free trade negotiations featured stories which were basically PR puffery about its benefits. Opponents, if they got a look in, where derided as marginal figures motivated by anti-Americanism. Now it’s almost impossible to find coverage of the few, if any, of the proposed benefits the deal has delivered.

Ironically, while some business claims are easy to promote through the media some others are impossible. The health thought police has an armchair ride when it comes to claims about alcohol, processed food or ‘food’ scares. They are helped by the general innumeracy and low scientific literacy levels of many journalists. For instance if you want to make a claim that something increases a risk by 25% you are safe from a question about whether the 25% increase is an increase from four to five chances in 100 or four to five in one million. The battles of the UK health authorities to rebut the flawed research on MMR vaccines is a case study in how authority of one sort, the medical establishment, is able to be challenged compare with the authority of, for instance, the Business Council of Australia.

But if you are in the medical research establishment a media release about a ‘discovery’ or a ‘breakthrough’ can usually achieve media coverage even though scientific stories tend not to get good runs generally. The transit of Venus may be a notable exception.

You are also unlikely to see a mainstream media story about the 300 odd Cuban doctors working in Timor Leste, the educational achievements of Finland or the successes of the Venezuelan music education program and its use in Victoria. You will, in contrast, get regular coverage of John Howard’s contribution to Timor Leste; the benefits of UK-US inspired school testing; the importance of teaching ‘the basics’ and historic dates; although the Venezuelan program did get mentioned by the Victorian Governor, Alex Chernov, at a concert he hosted at Government House last week if not in the media.

Possibly the best empirical test of the nature of media coverage and its predictability is to go away from Australia for a couple of months and then come back and see the extent to which the mainstream media is still covering the same narrow set or story types as it was before you went away.

Arguably this situation is being changed by new media and social media and perhaps the mainstream media might find some economic solace in a new narrative of its – particularly as the current one doesn’t seem to be producing great results for shareholders or the employment levels of journalists. It might also perhaps be disconcerting for some PR people and a welcome relief for others.

Declarations of interest: The author has worked for alcohol and processed food companies; companies and business organisations which have campaigned for and against tax and regulatory changes; and is a member of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society.