Now I don't begin to claim any great media knowledge, but I was a working journalist for around 16 years before venturing into public relations with the Gold Coast City Council for six years and then branching out into my own consultancy.
Does that make me an expert? Probably not. But as part of my stock in trade, I am expected to anticipate likely reactions to situations, and provide advice to clients on how they should, or should not, use the media.
The problem is that the biggest changes of all in corporate culture have occurred within the media itself.
Any relationship to the media where I was trained and the media of today is entirely coincidental.
Within the media itself, you don't have to go far before you find that it is divided into two distinct camps. Those journos over 40 years of age at least understand what the media used to be like...and hate the direction it's going; and the young things fresh out of university with a degree but no ability to answer the phone, no street knowledge, an inbuilt hatred of anyone who's successful and stars in their eyes. Around 2001, when the malaise within the general daily media was already obvious, I was chewing the fat with a mate of mine, a columnist and general features man, about the possibility of a syndication project for a writer friend of mine with a particularly good idea.
"Great, but we've got no money," he lamented. This was one of the Murdock chain of newspapers...and there's lots of those around. As an old mate of mine once said, when asked how many papers Murdock really controlled, he responded, "Mate, if a football was kicked out of any stadium in Australia, it would hit a Murdock newspaper building." That many?
Back to my journo friend. He told me there had been a complete freeze put on spending. Some fantastic writers outside the papers either had to content themselves with being in print for no return, or stay out of the game altogether. Staff who left were not being replaced. But as he said, the rules change overnight, so one is never sure what's going to happen next.
Such is the volatile nature of media.
MEDIA MANAGEMENT IS NOT THE BE ALL AND END ALL
Of course, working in PR on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia is one hell of a liability. I didn't realise it until much later in life, but the price of working in this part of the world is a high one if you relied on local support. Without national clients and overseas projects, I would have starved in the last 10 years. Not that media management is the be all and end all of what we do in the PR business - far from it.
The larger the company or organisation, the more concerned they are about their media profile. The "parish pump" kind of material which mostly comes out of the Gold Coast is a different kind of media material.
Publicity is not all that difficult to get if the story is good enough. Knowing how to market it and where to aim it is the hard part.
This is made harder by the fact that media move around constantly. Today's real estate writer on a provincial daily is tomorrow's movie critic on a paper a thousand kilometres away. You just can't keep up with them.
In today's media, young graduates with stars in their eyes demand by-lines while their nappies are still wet. In some papers, the reporter who does the three paragraph weather summary gets a by-line. How ridiculous. No wonder they have an over-inflated opinion of themselves.
Giving a young journalist a by-line is like putting a strutting young street hood into a police, army or customs uniform...they can't handle it. You need a certain wisdom and maturity to wear a uniform and it's the same with a by-line.
This is not the place for a lengthy dissertation on the media, but I've begun this page in this manner to try to show that business people must understand the changes that are occuring within media if they intend to use the media for any form of communication.
MANY BUSINESS PEOPLE ARE IGNORANT OF THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
I remain constantly amazed at the ignorance of many of today's executives when it comes to the role the media play in business.
I spend most of my time educating people on the role of media, so that they can live with their frustrations when nobody turns up for a so-called press conference. I've long since abandoned press conferences as a means of disseminating news, unless I can absolutely guarantee that the story is so crash hot that they can't ignore it.
..and here's where the problem lies. Those of us who have worked in the media can no longer understand how they think. I've reached the conclusion that the journalists inside the newsrooms don't understand it either.
Here's my conclusion. Stories are everywhere. I can make any product and any event into a story. However, at the receiving end, in the newsroom, it's very much a matter of chance and whim if your story gets any attention.
It frustrates clients when they pick up the paper and read story after story of mindless crap, when here they are with a great announcement to make and nobody is interested.
Here's an actual case study: A few years ago, I presided over a Sunday story break, with a great photograph involving the antics of a senior cabinet minister, and considered that the Courier Mail in Brisbane could very well go for it. Sunday is usually a good day to present a news idea so I pushed it as hard as it could go. They were receptive at first, but it didn't run. I phoned a mate who said the chief of staff had thrown it in the bin because he thought it was a little too commercial. I obviously had a different view.
On the Monday, knowing that there would be a different chief of staff at the desk, I lobbed exactly the same photograph and story. It made front page on Tuesday.
IS NEWS JUST A WHIM?
Just as people only care about the things they know, my theory is that journalists (not all of them mind you), generally will react better to something if they know something about it, or can identify with it. It's this simple..If I'm working for Ford and I have something important to say, I will do my research well and find out which journalist drives a Ford before I lodge it with the newsroom. Why? Because all too often, if a story about cars hits the desk of a journo who doesn't drive, he or she may not be interested and won't see the value in the story. I know many people in the media will be horrified by this suggestion, but just as many inside the media will agree with me. Let's face it, the media are the ultimate censors and all too often the censorship is in the hands of young, untrained reporters with a big ego and every little else between the ears. How do I know this? I was one myself once. The difference is that in my day, every phone call and every contact had to be vetted and discussed with a senior reporter rather than be dismissed out of hand.
I did a keynote address once to the Local Government Association of Australia at Bond University and I thought I would illustrate the need for good corporate public relations at local government level, but at the same time tell the story from the media's point of view. I had my good friend and then leading political journalist and author, Barry Galton with me. I wasn't sure how Barry was going to present his case, but he did it very simply and with great effect.
He walked to the podium after I had revved up the audience about the need for using media to reach their ratepayer audiences, carrying a large briefcase. He said nothing. Put the briefcase on the speaker's podium and with a flourish opened the clasps, flipped the lid and dragged out a bundle of papers around 20 cm high.
After discarding the briefcase, he stared at the pile of paper and said, "As I left the office to come here, I asked the Chief of Staff for the reject pile for today (it was now only early afternoon). "Tonight, this will be in the bin and the pile will be three times higher."
"Most of it hasn't been read. If someone has a minute they might thumb through it. These are faxes, news releases, emails, posted handouts, photographic opportunities, story ideas, invitations to great announcements...and they've come from everyone from Buckingham Palace down to the local Scout Troup. There's probably a lot of good stories in here..but we don't have time to look at them."
IS NEWS REALLY ONLY ENTERTAINMENT?
So how the hell do you get noticed inside the media. Aha...that's my secret and you need to engage my services and pay good money to find out. A lot of people do it instinctively. Some people, many of them idiots, manage to get into print with monotonous regularity. But they are merely entertainment value.
And that's another story. Can anyone tell me the difference between news and entertainment these days. It all looks the same to me and that's why there are so many grey areas in the media.
I have often taken issue with chiefs of staff who have rejected good ideas of mine about a commercial announcement...let's say the release of a new product which will save the environment and have great impact on people's lives. Their comment is too often - this story is too commercial, it's not news. How then do they justify running page after page, picture after picture of scantily clad, so-called PR girls (that really riles me), posing with a koala, or a tiger, or a snake or something four-legged at a local theme park. Surely the theme park is a commercial undertaking and should be paying for its space also.
WILL A DD CUP GET YOU MORE PRESS SPACE?
How do they deserve so much free space and time...they are in reality only another business. Perhaps I should have paraded a bikini girl with my announcement...the bigger the bra the better the spread (in the paper that is). Is that how it works?
Those of us who have worked in the media and still have to do so from the outside could each write a book on our own particular experiences. The media, many say, have lost their way to the almighty dollar. What we have to do is seek out the communication method which will provide the best results for the job at hand. Sometimes, the answer has nothing to do with the media. More often than not, it can be done with a clever bit of communication managed by direct approach to customers.
I guess what I am saying is that media is but one of the mechanisms that might be available as part of a company's marketing and PR strategy. It should never be regarded as the means to the end, but a tool which can be very useful if planned well and the story is good enough.
WHEN DO YOU TAKE THE MEDIA TO LUNCH?
I can't remember the last time I did so - perhaps back in the heady days of the 80's when money was plentiful and everyone was wallowing in it. I have never fauned after the media. If a story is good enough, it stands on its own two feet. You don't need bribery to get what you want. Some characters in PR believe it's essential, if not to send gifts to media, then to at least get drunk with them regularly. That's rubbish.
I don't believe in drinking with someone just because you have to. Social drinking is not a chore, it's a privilege to be shared with loved ones or real friends.
Drinking or dining with media at organised social engagements is a different issue.
Friendships which are likely to develop between PR operatives and media people are also another issue. I have many friends in the media, but I don't exploit them. If I have something which I think is worthwhile and that will interest them, I let them in on it, but I don't force the issue and I never call up old favours. That's one sure way of losing a friendship.
FOOTNOTE: A study just released in a national business mag lists journalism as one of the career paths which has slowed to negative levels over the past four years (from October 2001). It was listed among the slowest growing occupations with an aggregate growth over four years of minus 45.4%. Perhaps people are waking up to the fact that for most, it is not the glamour industry that some would think. Not in today's media anyway.
NEWTON'S sent out a Christmas card one year which revealed many of the frustrations of the year, including the media... designer John Wayne did a great job of producing a well eaten apple (Newton's logo), which folded out like a string of paper dolls, on which messages were printed. Ken Newton was always know as a "bah humbug" person at Christmas, so the card was in keeping with tradition. It looked like this folded.
Copyright 2000 (c) Newtons Pty Ltd