Media Biz 09 – either sinister or incompetent, but with an opportunity

datePosted on 12:58, February 15th, 2009 by Lew

I do believe it's not butterA few weeks ago, Gordon Campbell wrote an excellent fisk of the Media Biz 09 conference advertising bumpf. This morning on Mediawatch (from 06:30) Colin Peacock covered the issue in characteristic depth, interviewing the conference organiser and two of its luminary speakers, the ones who would “share the secrets of getting your message across positively”, help delegates “get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see” and enable them to “get your story to the top of the pile”. Three wise and grizzled industry heads, when questioned by Peacock, emphasised two things; first, that the marketing material was breathless over-hyped bullshit, and second, there were in fact no secrets to impart:

Mark Jennings, TV3 Head of News and Current Affairs:

“I think the marketing for this event has been over-egged [...] I can tell you right now that if anybody coming to this conference thinks they’re going to learn any super-secrets on how to handle the media, they’re mistaken. There aren’t any great big secrets, and if there was, we wouldn’t be divulging them.”

Mark Sainsbury, TV One Close Up Host:

“I paid no attention to the marketing of this thing. I had quite a simple inquiry from Rob Harley saying they were doing this conference, that it was mainly for voluntary groups, community organisations in terms of how to understand the media [...] This is the conference as it was sold to me, and the marketing, of course, as you well know, is something totally different. You don’t go along to, almost a semi-public conference, and people are somehow going to be handing over the secrets. [...] I mean, there is no great sort of secret to hide or anything to impart.”

Rob Harley, Media Biz 09 Organiser:

“I’m wondering what they [journalists not involved in the conference who have expressed concerns] think those secrets are. [...] we could argue the toss all morning about how we worded the brochure, or whether if we’d spent a bit more time workshopping it we could have got it right, fair point.”

I have a few questions in response to this rather remarkable set of statements.

1. Given that there are in fact no great secrets, why would anyone attend such a conference, at a cost of $2k per delegate?
2. If the conference is in fact pitched at the voluntary sector, community groups, educators and the like, variations of which were affirmed by all three speakers including Harley, why is it billed as “the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the media”, and why does it cost $2k per delegate (a cost far beyond the budgets of most such groups)? Come on, the word `biz’ is even in the conference title!
3. Why would anyone take communications advice from a bunch of people who have so abjectly failed to: a. communicate the purpose of their conference; b. correctly identify its target audience; c. market their conference material in such a way that it actually has some relationship with reality; d. avoid negative publicity for all of the above; and e. make any sort of justification to combat negative publicity stemming from the above failures, other than `well, yeah, the marketing is bollocks and there are no secrets anyhow’?

It’s possible to view this either as sinister or incompetent: either the conference organisers and the news agencies involved are just utterly incompetent and are now making excuses, or there is a co-ordinated post-hoc damage control programme underway, as those same people try to spin the story away from Gordon Campbell’s argument that this was a sinister meeting of the news and PR industries and an assault on media independence.

According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.” He’s absolutely right – there is a strong public good in having all sectors of the community meet a minimal standard of communications expertise. This sort of training can be a hugely important service, imparting skills (not `great secrets’) which are already widely exercised in business circles to groups without the capacity to employ trained comms staff or PR firms.

So, in my view, Rob Harley and the others involved in Media Biz 09 have a great opportunity to match their actions to their fine words about media literacy and the community and voluntary sector, by inviting a few delegates from key community or voluntary organisations to attend on a pro-bono or subsidised-fee basis. The conference is (presumably) too close to deadline to cancel, according to Harley it probably won’t break even anyhow, and I can’t see this epic PR fail helping to lift enrolment among the monied businessfolks at whom it’s targeted. But there’s no doubting the credentials of the speakers, and it’ll probably be a cracking two days. An opportunity for those involved to do some good, restore a bit of goodwill in the media, and wipe some egg off their well-known faces.

Edit: Gordon has emailed me to point out the seemingly-obvious, that they’re not so much knaves or fools, but apparently knaves then fools.

Edit, 20090217: Event director Richard Nauck told bFM’s Jose Barbosa a few interesting facts. First, he says half the registrations are non-profit organisations, while most of the remainder are small-business and schools; second, all the non-profits got in for half-price, and only about 20% of attendees have paid full-price; third, he “truly regrets” the use of the word `secrets’ in the advertising bumpf. In the same session, Jose also interviewed Brian Edwards, who does this sort of thing himself, but retains grave concerns about the conflicts of interest for the media people involved.

L

8 Responses to “Media Biz 09 – either sinister or incompetent, but with an opportunity”

  1. Anita on February 15th, 2009 at 13:52

    I listened to Mediawatch this morning and the explanations about community groups and thought what a truly excellent idea it is. Media organisations should, as part of their commitment to a rich and vibrant country, regularly provide opportunities for community organisations to meet senior media staff and learn how to interact effectively with the media.

    Of course if one was to do that:
    1) It would be free
    2) The attendees wouldn’t be attended as “business people”
    3) It would be run by the media organisations not a third party trying to make a profit from it.
    4) It would not be at a casino
    5) It would be one of a series held throughout NZ
    6) The speakers would be representative of the community and voluntary sector
    7) The workshops would be focussed on the needs of the C&V sector.
    8) The interaction types would be the type C&V organisations find effective (more hands on and hand-outs, less lectures in darkened rooms).

    As well as the opportunity you’ve identified I reckon there’s a great opportunity for the media organisations to do it again, but right this time.

    The thing that baffled me most about the whole thing was that there are speakers who have chosen to not get paid for it. If it genuinely was for the C&V sector that would be absolutely normal, but I can only imagine how they feel about donating their time to relatively wealthy business organisations.

  2. Quoth the Raven on February 15th, 2009 at 15:45

    I don’t think they’re going to restore any goodwill with the public at large, as you said this is either sinister or incompetent. I lost even more of the little faith I had in the MSM after reading Campbell’s article on this. I don’t know that anyone could now listen to media personalities involved in this, the likes of Mike McRoberts and Mark Sainsbury, with anything but incredulity.

  3. George Darroch on February 15th, 2009 at 16:15

    According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.”

    But that is exactly the problem. Journalists are paid to do this shit, find sources and get comment. That’s their problem, not that of the business sector.

    Determining what we read and hear should not be the job of paid shills, and outlets pretending to be independent should not be facilitating this process.

    The pages of every major newspaper in NZ, and much of the evening news is already taken almost verbatim from press releases. Can it get any worse? If Mark Jennings and friends have their way, yes…

  4. Lew on February 15th, 2009 at 16:58

    QtR,

    as you said this is either sinister or incompetent.

    Well, the two options aren’t necessarily exclusive – looks like they were sinister and then incompetent ;)

    I don’t know that anyone could now listen to media personalities involved in this, the likes of Mike McRoberts and Mark Sainsbury, with anything but incredulity.

    But people will continue to listen to and trust the journalists involved, for three reasons; first, the amount of semiotic reverence encoded in the Authoritative Media(™) of news and current affairs, by dint of its reputation, production and near-exclusive access to elite voices will only be tarnished to a small degree by this sort of thing; second, the mediascape continues to work as expected, keeping folk apprised of things they ought to know and care about, and in the context in which they ought to know or care about them; and third, because nobody else does either of these things.

    It sometimes pays to remind oneself, when reflecting on the public relationship with the news (especially on TV), that they play the weather forecast last thing because after that, people switch channels.

    GD,

    But that is exactly the problem. Journalists are paid to do this shit, find sources and get comment. [...] Determining what we read and hear should not be the job of paid shills, and outlets pretending to be independent should not be facilitating this process.

    Maybe it should be so, but how do you propose to make it so? News is a business, and finds the most efficient ways to do everything; there will always be some agencies whose press release is better-written, or quicker, or who calls and offers an interview laden with sweet sound-bitey goodness, or generally knows how the media industry works and can make it easy for news agencies to cover them. There’s no way to stop this from happening; the answer is not less media literacy, it’s more media literacy, held by more people, so the media are in the position of having a wide range of source material from which to choose.

    The pages of every major newspaper in NZ, and much of the evening news is already taken almost verbatim from press releases. Can it get any worse? If Mark Jennings and friends have their way, yes…

    Actually, in NZ it ain’t that bad. NZ’s media ecology is positively primitive compared with that of most developed countries, and levels of media literacy and PR savvy are fairly low, even in the government sector and corporations. Also, pound-for-pound, NZ media are fairly well-resourced (though we do lack economies of scale). But what I’m saying is that it could be a whole lot worse. I apologise for carrying on about this book, but read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News for a living autopsy of the once-healthy British media industry.

    L

  5. StephenR on February 15th, 2009 at 19:29

    …or listen to the (shorter) interview podcast with Kim Hill from…a few months ago :-D

  6. Anthony Nicholas on February 15th, 2009 at 22:57

    I was amazed to hear the Media Watch white wash that the conference was essentially aimed at “Not For Profits”, ( read “charities” you miserable sods). Huh?

    Only one sesion is, “WORKSHOP 01 Advancing the Not-for-Profit Message.” All the rest have a heavy business orientation. No problem with that, big problem with the whitewash.

    So it takes all those people, 12 speakers and 15 contributors to make a two day conference? Or is this a meet and greet for those who want to rub shoulders and absorb the heady aroma of newsmakers while hoping to make a contact? Some sweet hope.

    What ever way one looks at it, taking business from PR companies, whitewash that its all for charity at $2000 a pop or the hen giving advice to the foxes its smells of fish.

  7. David Farrar on February 16th, 2009 at 11:14

    I’ve spoken at very similiar events to this, and have heard many of the sessions from the journalists. This is hardly something new – there are normally a couple of these events a year.

    There is indeed nothing startling revealed. It is mainly common sense combined with some specific knowledge that can be useful, such as when deadlines for TV are, how best to contact a journalist.

    The normal attendees are relatively new or junior comms staffers in large corporates or govt depts – ie those with budgets to burn.

    The marketing is way over-hyped. This is probably why near identical conferences in the past have not been highlighted like this one is.

  8. [...] is sometimes Mediawatch on Radio NZ National, due largely to interviews by Colin Peacock such as this one about Media Biz 09 (on which I blogged here), and the one with Mark Weldon which aired this morning [...]

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