Pauline Rose, Prose NZ / President, PRINZ Thursday, 12 December 2013 Your 5 December editorial ‘The truth is out there’ notes an explosion of public relations people in the public sector and suggests ‘real journalism’ is being swamped by their presence. On behalf of communications staff in the public sector (who are also taxpayers and ratepayers) and all PRINZ members, I suggest that roles in local government and the health sector are not for the faint-hearted, and that the interchangeable use of the terms ‘communications staff’ and ‘media specialists’ is misleading. The definition of ‘communications’ in the public sector is at best inconsistent and almost always denotes more than media relations. As a (former) Communications Manager in local government my budget included the triennial 10 year Long Term Plan with its extensive community consultation; annual plans and reports; Official Information Requests; advertising for resource consents, job vacancies, council meetings and road closures; satisfying ratepayer requirements for council information; website content; graphic design; mayoral communications; media relations; social media; and displays, events and shows. It’s not clear what the increase in communications spending by the Southern District Health Board (which began this debate) was for, but my exposure to communications in the health sector during a recent consulting assignment suggests that rather than being over-supplied with comms staff, the sector is chronically under-resourced at a time when public demand for information has never been so high. Public relations today is multi-dimensional: it’s about listening to people and communicating with them, and if there has been an ‘explosion’ it is in the number of different channels, the immediacy and directness of communication, response and feedback. And ‘real journalism’? It’s up to us all as professionals and paid employees to do our best work. Over many years of observation, I’ve never seen anything stop a good journalist yet – and that’s the way it should be.
The global news arena has been pretty murky in recent months, made so most notably by the News International investigations centred in the UK which had ramifications for newsrooms around the world. Interesting then to see the wind of change blowing yesterday – again, from the UK – signalling the latest shift in ‘the way things are done’.
First from BBC World Service, a live broadcast (available as recording now) of their daily morning editorial meeting which I believe, could be useful listening for some.
In years gone by, journalists frequently migrated to public relations roles bringing with them an insider’s view as to the workings of the newsroom, editorial bun-fights and the speed of operation necessary when dealing with rapidly unfolding events.
Today’s practitioners tend to make public relations and communication management their ‘first choice’, studying at university before directly entering the profession. Generally, this means no experience inside the newsroom, so for them, and for others, like me, who migrated to public relations after a career in journalism many years ago, the BBC’s audio is a useful heads-up as to what can occur.
The other one to watch (rather than listen to) is the Guardian’s new ‘open journalism’ advert centred around the story of the Three Little Pigs and designed to promote the publication’s take on the route to sustainable journalism of the future or #opennews.
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, has said the future impact of journalism will be measured – or constrained – by how transparent and open it is, something with which I completely agree.
For practitioners, an important detail to note comes right at the end of the ad – underneath the Guardian banner are the four little words: web|print|tablet|mobile – and therein lies the rub. As practitioners we need to be equally adept at telling stories, broadcasting news and presenting the whole picture across many formats. And – with no huff and puff – being just as transparent and open.
In professional development sessions at PRiNZ we’ve been helping delegates tackle the migration from text to multi-channel formats for some time, exploring how we can create understanding through news stories that move away from text to other forms of engagement. Certainly then, some good food for thought as we watch publications like the Guardian embrace 21st century news presentation.
On a lighter note, I was chuffed to see the Three Little Pigs pressed into action as the base for their story – this porcine portrayal has featured in a practical exercise for the Writing Skills course for a while – nothing like changing the way we view something we know well in order to improve understanding of an issue – and maybe save some bacon in the process.