A little exercise for you: Next time you open your paper or surf the news online, count the number of times that stories concerning the Harper government carry e-mailed comments attributed to government or party spokespersons. Then count the number of times that such comments do not come with the e-mail qualifier.
I counted at least half a dozen news stories last week alone where a government spokesperson provided comment by way of e-mailed media lines. If you add Twitter to the mix, the majority of official replies to direct queries or emerging stories now come in digital format.
Live, on the record (or even on background) conversations between a reporter and a media relations officer or spokesperson are now the exception. E-mailing replies to media queries has become the standard operating procedure in federal media relations shops across the country.
Much has been said about the current government’s centralized message-control that would spur this robotic approach to media relations. What’s worrisome is that the practice is becoming more prevalent in other organizations, private and nonprofit alike.
Whenever an organization is now pressed by a reporter on a fast-breaking story with problematic undertones, the default response is to e-mail talking points that more often than not have only a vague familial connection to the questions being asked or the issue.
This is one of the subtle unintended consequences of the rise of digital communications: the convergence of enabling technology (digital messaging), long-standing suspicion (and fear) of the media, and dwindling resources and growing time-pressures in traditional newsrooms–call it media relations 2.0.
So, what does media relations 2.0 mean for corporate communications?
Deflecting or bridging are well known media relations techniques, and there was a time when media lines were crafted to help spokespeople deflect and bridge their way to a particular corporate take on an issue.
The difference is that in the past, these lines were used as part of the two-way dynamic of interviews and question and answer sessions that tested their validity and often overtook them. In media relations 2.0, talking points have become take-it-or-leave propositions.
But just because organizations are getting away with this, and everybody seems to be doing it, doesn’t make it a good communication practice.
For one thing, this new approach to media relations only contributes to suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the hack and flack divide.
It is a sign of an organization that can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees when talking points grudgingly inserted by reporters like non-sequiturs in news stories are viewed as more valuable than developing relations of trust with those same journalists.
Basically, in the media relations 2.0 paradigm, marking each and every story with unadulterated corporate DNA is more important than ensuring you have the reputational capital to carry the day when an e-mailed or Tweeted reply just won’t be enough.
Media relations 2.0 is also fundamentally unimaginative and reactive.
At its core is a mistrust of the mainstream media and a lack of understanding of its role and importance in framing public perceptions, and more fundamentally, of how it works.
As a result, great corporate stories remain untold or are poorly told, or are told by someone else.
The upside is that unlike the old-fashioned media relations I engaged in as a government flack in the late 90s, media relations 2.0 is safe–there’s no danger of being misquoted or losing control of an interview. The problem is, it’s like the safety of standing on the sidelines during your high school formal: no one turned you down, but neither did you dance.