Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who are the 'media' anyway? The new reality of media engagement

One of the long established principles in government and big business is that only designated staff are allowed to represent their organisations when speaking to the media.

This is an extremely well-intentioned principle, designed to protect both the organisation and individual staff. The media is frequently more interested in sensation than truth and can twist innocent statements into major incidents. Even when truth and accuracy are the goal, some things may need to be kept secret (at least for awhile) for good reasons - to protect intellectual property, safeguard individual privacy, avoid giving the competition an advantage or to keep complex fast-changing situations from being presented in static and simplistic (or inaccurate) ways.

Professional journalists are, in some ways, trained interrogators (and sometimes executioners). It can take an experienced, well-trained and well-briefed organisational representative to navigate a conversation that will later be reported, dissected and analysed for flaws and inconsistencies.

This limited media engagement approach relies on a single very important factor - that the 'media' is a clearly identifiable group.

In the past it was easy to identify the media. They were the people who owned the media distribution channels - radio stations, television channels and newspapers and magazines.

Commonly journalists identified themselves based on the media outlet they were from - except when going undercover - and a good organisational media representative could relatively easily identify and, over time, build productive relationships with the leading journalists covering their topical material.

However with the introduction of the internet this changed. We now have a virtually free global distribution network topped by ubiquitious access to publishing devices - including video and photos (via mobile phones) - and usage rates in excess of 90% of western populations.

Every internet user is able to break news to every other internet user - via blogs, citizen news sites, social networks, chatrooms, forums, newsgroups, microblogs and other online media channels.

This news can then be picked up and redistributed by other internet users and may also be picked up by 'traditional media' - those radio stations, television channels, newspapers and magazines (who are thirsty for cheap content).

This makes the question 'who are the 'media' a moot point. The 'media' is now 'the public' - no longer a small group of large conglomerates controlling information distribution channels but every single person with access to a mobile phone and internet connection.

This poses a challenge for government and private sector organisations who traditionally limit media engagement by staff. All of their customers and stakeholders are able to produce, publish and distribute media news. So can their employees.

So if the rules of the past no longer apply, what can organisations do?

The first choice is to ignore the changes in the environment and try to enforce the rules that worked in the past.

This approach is enormously risky as it can lead to many gray areas and blind spots - plenty of room for inappropriate and inconsistent enforcement. Individual managers (or in the government, agencies) could interpret the scope of the 'media' differently - creating discrimination and a rising tide of dissatisfaction and legal controversy.

The second choice is to educate all of an organisation's staff on how to engage appropriately in public arenas.

This is a signficant, but not impossible, undertaking. In fact Telstra is in the process of doing this right now (regarding social media engagement), as are the US Defense forces and some government agencies and large companies around the world. This approach recognises that the media environment has changed and organisations must change with it.

The third choice is to - well I can't think of a third choice. Organisations can either recognise the realities of the world and accommodate change, or they can attempt to hold back or even reverse them.

The next few years will tell us which approach organisations have chosen - and how well they have worked out.


  1. Hi Craig,

    My name is Mike Hickinbotham and I'm Telstra's Social Media Senior Advisor.

    Really good post.

    It highlights the opportunities and challenges before organisations and subtly highlights the massive opportunity to refresh how organisations work and think.

    I think the biggest challenege before most organisations is overcoming traditional management mindsets which could be blocking opportunities to trial web 2.0 based comms experiments.

  2. Thanks Mike,

    I think the mindset challenge is a universal one.

    I liken it to the challenges advocates of the printing press faced when introducing mass-produced books.

    The 'management' (leaders) at the time struggled to understand the benefits of having a population that could read.

    Of course, sometimes even the proponents of new technology and approaches do not understand their full potential either.

    As Alexander Bell is reported to have said, "It is my firm belief that one day there will be a telephone in every major town in America."



  3. After AGIMO's online consultation consultation (yes, I meant to say "consultation consultation") a while back which I consider the precursor to the Gov2.0 taskforce, and called in to discuss some of the issues I'd raised, one of the topics that came up highlighted the difference between the on-line activities of staff of "normal" companies and those in agencies, because the same person has the right to make public observations as a citizen, as well as the potential right/duty to make public comment as part of an agency.

    It's particularly tricky in a situation where the person has a passion about a topic, and works in a related agency (e.g. a disabled person working in government on accessibility issues, or a climate scientist employed by CSIRO). In a public forum (whether a government blog/forum, or indeed, a submission to a senate inquiry), even contemplating the disclaimer/disclosure boilerplate to indicate which "hat" a person is wearing at the time caused furrowed brows.

    I'm wondering whether there are good conventions for the way agency staff are able/unable to make submissions as a citizen to senate inquiries, and whether these could be adapted for online engagement with government. If a citizen loses rights to make submissions to senate inquiries when joining the public service, there is a problem....

    I don't know what guidelines there are for submissions to committees, but if you do, would those guidelines transfer to online government engagement easily?