The Dividing Line Between PR and News Disappears

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Gordon Campbell asks whether TVNZ and TV3 should be tutoring the spin merchants

Should shepherds be in the business of selling the secrets of how they guard their flocks? I know, that’s an awkward and not particularly accurate analogy – but it was the one that came to mind when considering a two day conference called MediaBiz-09 due to be held at the Sky City Convention Centre in mid February. Here’s how the ads go :

“The nightly news – a friend or a foe to your organisation? At Media Biz
09 a stunning line-up of professionals will share the secrets of getting
your message across positively, in all forms of the media. Media Biz 09
brings you Mark Sainsbury, Mike McRoberts, Kevin Milne, Fran O’Sullivan
and the country’s top consumer affairs media law and communications

At the conference website here there’s more in similar vein. As well as contributions from the above names, the keynote speakers include Paul Holmes, TVNZ presenter Cameron Bennett, TV3 head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings, TVNZ news and current affairs chief Anthony Flannery, TV3 news producer Mike Brockie, TV3 news editor Alison Harley and Liam Jeory, for a long time the public relations face of the fast food giant McDonalds. Plus ‘contributions ‘ from TV3 political editor Duncan Garner, CEO Starship chief Andrew Young, TVNZ business reporter Corin Dann, TVNZ Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver etc etc.

According to the conference website, this will be ‘the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the news media.’ As a delegate, you will be instructed on how to ‘enhance your interaction with the news media’ and given the chance to get ‘ up close and personal’ with the media talent taking part.

What the news practitioners are touting to business are secrets on how to massage the news agenda in its favour. For instance, from the conference website :

A team of media and PR specialists will take apart one of the country’s most daunting PR challenges and show you the right way to do it. And most interesting, the valuable workshops will include how to write and present news releases that make it to the top of the news editor’s pile.

Essentially the conference pitch is that business can learn how to manipulate the day-to day news gathering of the editors, journalists and presenters that will be peddling this sage advice. Can just any of the hoi polloi get this alleged inside scoop on how to push the buttons of the Fourth Estate ? No, not readily. Not unless they can stump up with the two day registration fee of $2019.38 (incl. GST) or the one day options that cost $1350 ( GST inclusive) each.

Surely, there’s no real problem involved in telling business how to communicate its interests ? Well, there can be. Compared to most other groups in society that are affected by corporate policy, business already has greater resources at its command to get its message across in the arena of public opinion. One can only wonder what the p.r. industry – whose core business involves selling its media expertise to the corporate world – feels about media personnel brazenly invading their turf.

Beyond that, such conferences have some dire implications for any public debate between competing social interests. Take things downstream for a moment. The news and current affairs machinery of the mainstream media are promising to provide access – from behind a sizeable entry fee barrier – to insider knowledge on how and why they prioritise news events. They will be conveying what language and presentation will get a firm’s priorities into the news bulletin in the first place, and lift it up the news chain – thus conveying the firm’s preferred messages about its corporate activities, to the public at large.

Including damage control when business gets caught out screwing up. The conference features a session called When the Shit Hits the Fan that claims to demonstrate how news coverage can be managed in order to limit the potential damage to the company from negative public perceptions. Presumably, the media experts on tap at the conference all believe what they’re saying. Therefore, if a firm pays its entry fee and uses the recommended techniques in say, their press releases, couldn’t they reasonably expect their firm’s agenda will receive improved coverage in future, from the country’s main news outlets ?

Helpfully, the conference website gives a thorough breakdown of the blurring of the boundaries that is envisaged. One of the sessions involves Flannery of TVNZ and Jennings of TV3.:

The heads of both major TV news networks will talk about the Business of News, what shapes news priorities, the effect of ratings, the competitive edge, what each would do if they were in business and trying to get their message across. Facilitator Rob Harley will quiz Mark and Anthony on their philosophy of newsgathering, and conference delegates will be able to get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see throughout the news cycles.

Liked that bit about Flannery and Jennings trying to imagine that they run a business. And how about this ‘great interactive session’. in which delegates will be taken into the world of the nightly news :

This is insight that’s a must for any executive or communications consultant seeking to fully understand the process of daily newsgathering. The session presents delegates with a typical daily news producer’s list of story choices and asks you to analyse what stories YOU would choose, and how you’d place them in a bulletin. Then, Alison [Harley] and Mike [ Brockie] will explain, using actual examples, how story choices are made and evolve during a typical news day. This session will bring real clarity to how some stories succeed and others fail, and how to think with more penetration about framing your message. How the news decision makers plan a news bulletin and the barriers to persuading a news team that your story is worth covering.

Yup, we need to do all we can to help the corporate world break down those barriers that are stopping the media from treating their perspective as newsworthy. Its such an uphill battle ! At the conference, the non-profit sector does get a session in which to learn how to advance their case, but the main target is pretty clear. In business journalist Fran O’Sullivan’s print media session, she will be advising ‘how people seeking to engage with the media in the print realm can better prepare themselves and present their case.’ In similar vein, the session called Getting Your Story to the Top of the Pile with facilitator Alison Harley, News Producer, TV3 has this outline :

A news producer is confronted with literally hundreds of choices each day about which stories “make the cut” as news items. Stories that don’t meet the criteria of interest or relevance are quickly discarded. So if you have a story to tell, how do you capture the media’s attention? Alison has more than twenty years experience in TV daily news – both as Chief Reporter (where she assesses and selects potential stories) and News Programme Producer. She will present a practical workshop, full of valuable do’s and don’ts for people trying to get coverage for an event or issue. A great session for marketing, communications and public relations specialists.

Yes, that’s definitely the factor missing from the media mix of late – the interests of marketing, communications and public relations specialists. Clearly, a chunk of the mainstream media now feels it appropriate to tell the spin merchants –for a price – how to spin their stories more prominently, and profitably. 
Corin [Dann] and Brett Cammell, the programme tells us, both work in the “engine room” of TV One’s ‘popular and respected’ breakfast business programme.

Key teaching points at their workshop will include : what makes a great pitch to a business TV programme, the pros and cons of using a public relations consultant to take your message to the media, and finding the winning angles to your message.

The highlight of the conference though, is promised to be the session where Mike McRoberts – you know, that guy who gets the news – guides the delegates through ‘one of the most high-profile New Zealand corporate crises of modern times.’ Again, from the conference programme –

Mike will cast his keen eye over how the story unfolded in the headlines and the evening news, and with a team of media, corporate and communications specialists, will analyse the key decisions [right and wrong] that were made along the way. For company executives, marketing and comms people, this session is a must. You’ll learn about how it’s often the corporate and PR decisions made in the midst of a corporate crisis that can radically alter public perceptions and reactions. The uniqueness of this session will be Mike’s insight into how the media reacts and processes the various elements that emerge in a corporate crisis.

In other words, the corporate sector will be instructed on how to manage the public perceptions and media fallout arising from their own dodgier actions. Given its prominent role in this conference, TVNZ could be queried as whether this sort of thing is in line with the principles contained in the Television New Zealand Act 2003.

I’m thinking of Clause 12 (2)(b)(i) that requires TVNZ to provide ‘ independent, comprehensive, impartial and in-depth coverage of, and analysis of, news and current affairs in New Zealand.’ Or the requirement in (ii) to ‘promote informed and many-sided debate and stimulate critical thought…” Questionable, when one of the most powerful lobbies in New Zealand society is being enticed to purchase insider knowledge on how to massage the news messenger. But then, this is all in the social charter part of the legislation that National has pledged to scrap.

For his part, TVNZ spokesperson Peter Parussini feels no ethical lines are being crossed. Such conferences are being held by p.r. companies all the time, he says. “I don’t see any problem with it.”

But doesn’t the sizeable fee boost the perception this is insider knowledge, available only at a price? “ As you know, there’s not much insider knowledge involved in working with journalists,” Parussini says. “I don’t see any problem…As I say, these sorts of conferences are happening monthly, all round the country.” Public relations people are constantly pitching their stories to newsrooms. “At the end of the day, there’s still an ethical hurdle to be crossed – and journalists will still make a judgement call about whether [the story] has news value. “

Who are these guys ? Richard Nauck is listed in the programme as “ Event Director.” Presumably this is the same Richard Nauck who, in an Unlimited magazine article during 2002 expressed strong ideas about the negative attitudes in New Zealand towards business investment. The same article also contains criticism of the ‘slow approval process’ involved with the Resource Management Act, and the extent of objection rights in New Zealand to the plans of developers.

[Richard Nauck is] the general manager of the exclusive Kauri Cliffs golf resort owned by billionaire New Yorker Julian Robertson and also situated in Northland, near Kerikeri….. Nauck, an American with New Zealand citizenship, advises other wealthy Americans about investing here. What does he tell them?

“The process is painfully slow. There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty. You don’t know what you need at the beginning.” … Nauck says an investor can be granted consents, “jump through a lot of hurdles” and still face delays. “All it takes is one Maori saying, ‘This is my land,’ and it will throw projects months or years behind.”

He agrees the process is designed to protect the land and the environment but says it is stopping many worthwhile investments. “There are a lot of [very rich] people with bigger plans for New Zealand but they are saying, ‘We’ll do it if we ever finish this one.’” The hostile attitude of some New Zealanders towards foreign investment doesn’t help, Nauck says.

Clearly, Nauck has been a man with strong convictions that foreign investment is negatively perceived here, and subjected to undue amounts of scrutiny and delay – and that the rights exercised by Maori to object and hold things up can be excessive. The billionaire Julian Robertson ? That would almost certainly be the same person controversially alleged by Trevor Mallard to have been a donor to the National party election campaign before the 2005 election.

It all sounds pretty cosy. The conference will provide one more opportunity for business and the mainstream media to learn how to get their messages in sync. Later this year though – when business lobbyists appear on television to press for changes to the objection process under the Resource Management Act – won’t these same news outlets have helped to skew the grounds for debate ? Because in one corner will be the corporates tutored at such conferences, and in the other will be ordinary citizens trying to put their case. Surely, that’s the sort of situation the Fourth Estate should be trying to expose, not to bring about.