Monday, 22 September 2008

In a spin over the dark side - a.k.a. public relations

The debate was raging in the office this week about the raison d'etre of a local authority press office. Are they there to inform or spin?

Journalists would definitely say inform, but the evidence leans the other way.

A colleague has written a very good blog post which you can read here on this very subject, so I will go no further on that.

But going on a slight tangent, I’d like to look at the strange new trend which has seen local government press offices transformed into multimedia newsrooms.

Going out on jobs now, you will be surprised (or maybe not) to see council press offices armed to the teeth with the latest video kit. Top quality cameras, best in class tripods, expensive microphones, and they will boast about a fully furnished editing suite back at base.

A good investment of your local council tax?

No longer do press offices have to rely on local newspapers to get their message out. They are themselves producing their own bespoke publications, and more and more are producing good quality multimedia news-style reports.

Propaganda? You bet.

You have likely seen some of these videos on local newspaper websites, but not known it. They are the multimedia press release. And as some newspaper offices struggle to fund the kind of kit needed to produce video, and the training to allow reporters to use it, then why not?

Well here comes the point which Nick Davies makes when he coined the term churnalism. A newspaper wouldn’t, or shouldn’t reproduce a press release unchecked and countered with balance, so should it reproduce a full council video release? Of course it’s going to happen, but these PR videos should only be used with a big health warning – ‘video produced by failed journalist’. [That’s a joke all you people on the dark side.]

The danger is that in these times of cost cutting and newspaper job losses, press releases and PR fodder are being used as a replacement for the hack. Balance and all the elements of good journalism go out the window.

Press officers should be there to help. They should be a journalist's friend. Most are former journalists themselves, who have gone the way of the dark side in the search of a decent wage. Who can blame them?

But a tip to all those reporters who face the sharp tongue of a hard-bitten Alistair Campbell wannabe press officer – don’t rise to it. Treat a press office exactly as you would a contact. Culture a good relationship, chat about the football and the weather. But always check their information and be aware of the possibility of spin.

It wasn't that long ago that a press officer would want to keep a reporter sweet to ensure he could get something in the paper. No longer. “You don’t want to put it in, so what, it’s already on our website.”

Welcome to Web 2.0 PR.


Lalalaura said...

As a PR I was tasked with commissioning a "VPK" (video press kit, but the client was a pretentious management geek who liked his acronyms) for a filthy big property developer.

I'd forgotten about the experience, but thinking back it did work - the BBC and ITN used the wallpaper footage we put out with their own words over the top.

Harmless, really. Or not - as if they'd shown up to film it for themselves the crews would have seen a different story of slave labour, poverty and racism on the construction sites.

Kevin Matthews said...

It makes you think how many real stories are being missed because of churnalism and shrewd PR.