2006 John B Knight Memorial Presentation

Delivered August 24 2006

How important is the media in your communication with stakeholders?

A couple of weeks ago I was in Denmark and went to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

The visit reminded me that the Andersen story I’ve always liked best is the Emperor’s new clothes – mainly because its moral has such wide implications for governments, companies and anyone who aspires to be a leader.

Today I’d like to discuss the question of whether the media is the emperor in the story.

Media – in the broadest sense – has been important in societies for thousands of years. Cave paintings were a form of media providing information about hunting, people and places. Paintings and sculptures in cathedrals were parts of public awareness campaigns. Newsletters and pamphlets were vital to the religious controversies of the 16 and 17th centuries.

So you could argue that our modern media are nothing special – merely different in form and content.

However, while they may be merely different in form and content the perception of their role and influence has changed immensely. It is my contention that some of that perception is based on myth.

For instance, the myth of the overwhelming importance of television to election campaigns dates from the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 when, as everyone will tell you, Nixon’s five o’clock shadow cost him the election.

In fact the there were as many people listening to the debate on radio as were watching television, and surveys showed that people who listened on radio were more likely to have thought Nixon won.

Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago’s ballot box stuffing was also probably more influential than either radio or TV.

But there was something else which was also crucially important. You will recall that during that campaign Martin Luther King’s freedom marches were taking place and that King was arrested and jailed.

Kennedy’s campaign team were unsure what to say, or do, about the jailing. They were in an airport when one of the campaign team convinced JFK that he should call Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s wife, and express his concern. He did.

A few days later – the Sunday before the election –  the campaign team, in conjunction with civil rights groups, produced thousands of leaflets about the call and distributed them to African-American churches throughout the country.

The result – for the first time since the Civil War more African-Americans voted Democrat than voted Republican.

Now everybody knows about the TV debate. Many people know about Mayor Daley but not so many know about the phone call to Coretta King.

Yet I would argue that this phone call – and the word of mouth publicity through churches throughout the US – may have been equally, or even the most, important factor in the Kennedy win..

Let’s turn to another myth – one which directly relates to the question of Emperors and their clothes – the power of Alan Jones.

It is axiomatic that Alan Jones is powerful – he says so, the PM says so, Bob Carr says so.

Yet let’s look at his audience.

David Salter, former Media Watch producer, wrote about the Jones phenomena in The Monthly a while ago.  He analysed Jones’ audience – 17.5% of the Sydney breakfast market.

It may be dominant in the time slot but how dominant overall?

In fact he has about 185,000 listeners from a potential market of 3.75 million listeners. Salter says: “His average audience in Sydney is about on a par with the number of viewers in that city for Gardening Australia.”

Salter goes on to estimate that of those likely to change their vote – the crucial swinging voters – he Jones’ audience amounts to just 1250 people spread over Sydney’s 25 Federal electorates.

In other words Jones’ is influential because people treat him as influential. When some person finally speaks up about the Emperor’s clothes then perhaps that influence will evaporate.

This is not to say that the media is not influential – mainly because – like Alan Jones – it reinforces people’s attitudes.

Indeed, it is often argued that people choose the media outlet which most reflects their own views. In this situation media re-assures and re-inforces rather than changes attitudes.

If you have owned a restaurant you will know that one bad review in a newspaper is enough to kill it off. On the other hand, good or bad film and theatre reviews are less influential as in these areas word of mouth is most important.

There is also some research which suggests that the tone (note the tone not the content) of media coverage affects share prices.

John Maynard Keynes said that spirits of investors can turn on “digestions and reactions to the weather.” The Economist, on June 3 this year, reported that Paul Tetlock of the University of Texas at Austin has investigated that. He used a computer to read more than 3,700 editions of the Wall Street Journal’s daily market column. He classified the content using the Harvard “psycho-social” dictionary which classifies words according to the mood they express.

He found that particularly pessimistic columns foreshadowed a fall of 0.08% in the Dow the next trading day.

Doesn’t seem like much does it?

But the average daily return on the index from 1984 to 1999 was only 0.054%.

Moreover, in Australia – where media attitudes are so monolithic and predictable that The Age and the ABC are considered left wing – the unrelenting espousal of a particular world view must, one imagines, shape community attitudes to some extent.

Nevertheless, betting against  the Canberra Press Gallery conventional wisdom is always a safe wager;  and, we have shocks like the Jeff Kennett defeat in Victoria and the sudden emergence of One Nation.

Despite all of this I still contend that the media is not as important in communicating with stakeholders as the media – and some commentators – imagine.

The first reason for this is that, newspapers particular, simply don’t relate to what most people are thinking and doing.

To the extent that much of the media are now simply extensions of the lifestyle industries, rather than some crucial element of the democratic system, they do reflect consumer styles and fashions but less so the vital aspects of people’s lives.

Before coming down here I took a quick look at some of the recent Mercury coverage of local events ranging over the State bus service, the TOTE, Gunns, hospitals and Hydro Tasmania.

All of the coverage was unrelentingly negative but, more importantly, it was relentlessly formulaic.

Headlines inevitably refer to blasts, fury, crisis, dramas and so on. Someone who didn’t know Tasmania, but reading the Mercury, would think the State was in a constant crisis of corrupt politicians and companies, a crime wave, Third World public transport and a population which constantly talks in frenetic hyperbole.

Now I haven’t been down here since the last 10 days on the island festival but I’m sure if it changed quite so much in quite so short a time Ingrid and Tony Harrison would have told me.

As in much of the tabloid media in Australia there is little discussion of social and economic policy, the deep demographic shifts which shape society, or other major socio-economic and cultural trends and developments.

Indeed, we should not imagine that The Mercury is not alone.

In terms of risks facing the world, AIDS and global warming are much more dangerous than terrorism but you would never know that from just about any of the world’s media.

Indeed, if you have the misfortune to spend lots of time in international hotel rooms with

only CNN for English language news you would never know much about anything. CNN’s slogan should be more is less, with noone in the history of the planet devoting so much time and so many resources to produce so little news.

Of course we all know that bad news sells newspapers, although Australian circulation figures suggest that there need to be an awful lot it to reverse the steady decline in readership.

But the formulaic nature of it all the coverage is also a significant factor in the decline. Whenever you go away for a holiday and come back after a month or so it’s as if you never left because the media are covering the same stories in the same boring way as when you went away.

Some journalists are aware of the problem. Gideon Haigh – a wonderful cricket writer and freelancer on everything from business to politics – said in The Monthly  recently that journalists put too much emphasis on career and individual advancement and stories become “a means to the end of getting noticed, being promoted, cultivating a persona, becoming a name.”

Paul Sheehan, the journo, not the cricketer and headmaster, is his book The Electronic Whorehouse says journalism today is composed of “lies, fabrications, character assassinations, reputational rapes, point scoring, axe grinding, sneering, smearing, and generalized weaseling”

I must say when I read that it reminded me of a thought that came to my mind once regarding William Goldings’s book, the Lord of the Flies, about the monstrosities that boys marooned on an island get up to – “it made young boys out to be much nicer than they are”.

You will notice I have spent most of my time talking about the print media. That is not an omission because I supect that for most people television is less a news source and more a lifestyle choice or babysitter, while radio is a sort of aural wallpaper at its worst. At its best, of course, radio is a powerful medium because it is about conversations between people.

However, enough of the problems – in the famous question posed by Lenin – What is to be done?

The short answer is the internet although we need to recognize that the major online news sources are not blogs, crikey and other outlets but the online services of major media outlets.

I must say I get most of my immediate news needs met by the ABC online.

But the internet is more than blogs and news sites. There is a profound range of new products and services emerging which are substituting individual, participatory media for mass media.

On April 22 this year The Economist published a feature on new media called “Among the audience’ which is an excellent guide to what is happening in this field.

Developments which the feature highlighted include:

  • The new Movable Type blogging software – favored by celebrities at present – which makes blogging much easier. The Movable Type has a capital M and T and the name is deliberately designed as a homage to Gutenberg’s innovation. Basically, just as Gutenberg made it easier to replicate copies of information so this technology makes it very easy to create blogs.
  • A Pew research report which showed that 57% of American teenagers had created content for the internet.
  • The Wikipedia phenomenon. For those who don’t know about this it’s basically an online encyclopedia which anyone can contribute to. Critics point out that it contains inaccuracies but then so does Britannica and so do most newspapers most days.
  • Ohmy News – the participatory online South Korean journal – which encourages citizen participation in politics. This is simply an electronic newsletter which encourages citizenship and gets distributed by readers to wide numbers of people.
  • Al Gore’s setting up of Current TV which allows viewers to contribute their own video stories for broadcast.
  • The photosharing site Flickr in the UK which was so important after the July 7 Tube bombings when thousands of pictures taken by Londoners with mobile phones and digital cameras became instantly accessible around the world.
  • YouTube (which is viewed by more people than is BBC News) is simply a means by which anyone can put their films, videos or visual stuff online to make it accessible to anyone in the world.

Other developments such as better data base marketing have created a new era of personalized contact as demonstrated by the increasing sophistication of political parties local campaigning. It is the source of the new-found belief that all politics is local – even if the strategy comes from a central computer.

And there are many, many other developments.

All the developments are manifestations of the one big thing the dotcom boom got right – the Internet’s power of disintermediation in which communication is direct and intermediaries such as the media are bypassed.

And in that concept – the elimination of intermediaries – is the core of a new approach to dealing with stakeholders.

It is my view that governments, companies and organizations must strive as much as possible to eliminate intermediaries whether they be media, interest groups or lobby groups from the contact they have with their stakeholders.

This means ensuring staff are empowered to deal directly and effectively with customer needs and concerns.

It means setting up corporate blogs like the ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s did to combat environmental disinformation and Telstra have now done. Whatever you think of Telstra’s current communication and public affairs strategies that element has been a success. A number of Federal MPs have also set up such blogs.

It means dealing directly, face to face, with people who live alongside your manufacturing or other company facilities.

It means focusing on the quality of relationships with your stakeholders because that – the nature and quality of relationships – is more important to your reputation than the perceptions which media and third parties seek to shape.

And what of the media in all of this?

A while ago The Age did some market research and found that its readers were dissatisfied because the paper was always telling them what to think. Instead they wanted information which let them think about issues themselves.

I think most media outlets have the same problem – they assume from opinion pages to story and story angle selection that they can tell people what to think about what is important and why it is important.

They also have false consciousness about their role in society – thinking they fulfil a mythical Fourth Estate role which they not only don’t do now, but probably never did.

The result – newspaper circulations are falling in absolute and relative turns and mass TV’s market share is declining.

In this environment you need to have the courage to say the Emperor has no clothes and not automatically reply to the media whenever it asks for information.

Parliamentary media secretaries – mainly ex-journalists – are notorious for thinking that they have to respond to journalists’ questions.

The reality is that the media doesn’t have a right to know – they are just another commercial operation in a competitive world  – it is the public which has a right to know.

……and you can inform them without using the media through anything from direct mail, the internet and personal contact.

Equally your stakeholders – the ones who provide you with your licence to operate – have a right to know directly from you rather than through intermediaries.

Some years ago a prominent Tasmanian politician, who was at Melbourne Uni at the same time as I was, rang for a chat, curious about what was happening in leading edge political campaigning.

I replied that Tasmania was the future.

The notion that you should start with the community and work on the principle that you can go out and talk with almost all of them – whether personally or through technology – was the way of the future.

You can also choose trusted channels – just as the JFK team did with the African-American churches.

Tasmanians have lived with the concepts and strategies of direct community contact and influence through trusted sources – whether they be family, friends or churches –  for a long time.

The rest of the world is now just catching up.