Communicating the complex business of government in simple language is an important survival skill for public sector practitioners. Veteran TV news producer Steve Carey separates what cuts through ‑ and what hits the cutting room floor.
Media releases… they have the power to engage, uplift, entice, explain and inform. On the other hand, they can bore people witless and deliver a stunning “own goal”. I remember a classic example from my days at the 7 Network. In a dispute over sports broadcast rights with the network, the Australian Subscription and Radio Association (ASTRA) issued a weighty three-page media release on the issue. The Seven’s Network’s response?
“ASTRA’s latest comments have bored us rigid. We’re so bored we can’t even raise the enthusiasm to reply.”
This demonstrates that a short, sharp press release, which gets straight to the point, will usually win hands down. Unfortunately this is a fact lost, all too often, by those working in government and political circles and it’s simply because too many people use complex jargon to explain simple policy measures.
During a 35-year career in journalism I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ‘binned’ or ignored what some bureaucrat’s press office has sent me because it was almost unintelligible or just too boring. The example, sampled below, is from the Office of Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. It’s overly long, full of minutiae and has no chance of engaging the media, let alone the electorate.
The abolition of 23 non-statutory advisory bodies including: the Social Inclusion Board; the Australian Animals Welfare Advisory Committee; the Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council; the International Legal Services Advisory Council; the National Intercountry Adoption Advisory Group; the National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing; the Antarctic Animal Ethic Committee; the Advisory Panel on the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula; the High Speed Rails Advisory Group; the Maritime Workforce Development Forum; the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing; the Insurance Reform Advisory Group; the National Housing Supply Council; the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing; the National Children and Family Roundtable…”
Simple, everyday conversational speech is the key. Communication in plain English, whether verbal or written, should be a mantra of everyone in government circles… be they the Minister, the Minister’s media team right down to a department’s front office staff.
The reason is obvious. How do you sell complex, often controversial, new policy initiatives and ideas to the electorate if voters don’t have the chance to grasp the concept? My advice to anyone distributing these messages: keep it simple.
When I ran the 7 Melbourne newsroom, I always told my less experienced reporters to pretend that they were telling the story to a friend at the pub over a beer. For some reason, the idea of chatting to a friend in an informal setting really does help us distil messages into their most basic form. It doesn’t mean that we’re talking down to people; we’re simply engaging our audience on a level everyone can understand. And fully understanding a concept allows people to become actively engaged in the discussion.
All too often senior public servants, politicians, and their advisors, forget that a conversation is a two-way-street. The dialogue will not flow if stakeholders and the general public need a dictionary of technical terms to begin the process. There’s also a mindset, which is changing, that the senior government official – the Premier, Party Leader or Minister, must be the ones to convey ‘big announcements’.
On the contrary, at NewsFlash Media our independent research shows that the subject matter expert is the person most people want to hear from. They want to hear from someone who, with the right level of media training and confidence, knows what’s going on and can convey the big picture in simple terms.
While the person signing the ‘political cheques’ should be centre stage, the key to a successful launch is having the right expert on hand to respond with certainty and clarity. The other critical factor is ensuring the information is delivered in easily digestible, well-rehearsed ‘sound bites’. Again, this requires a level of skill and confidence that can be learned with the right advice, training and key messaging.
Now there’s a new kid on the block revolutionising the way we communicate – social media. What a trap for the unwary that’s proven itself to be. How many times over the past couple of years has a high profile individual come unstuck because they tried to fudge the truth, hide the facts or refuse to answer the question only for the information to be made available online for everyone to see?
That’s why I believe that open and honest communication is a far more effective tool in the PR wars these days than sugar-coated media messages and spun half-truths. A couple of years ago the Herald Sun even ridiculed the Brumby Labor Government in Victoria for having more spin doctors than any other state government in the country.
“The Victorian Government is the spin king of Australia, with more than 700 of the nation’s 3000 media advisers working for Premier John Brumby and his team.
The Brumby Government and its agencies are employing hundreds of staff to manage their public perception at a cost to taxpayers of more than $70 million a year, a Sunday Herald Sun investigation has found.”
In our media training, we teach spokespeople that controversy can be a great opportunity, but only if you have sound messages around the issue and the right people to deliver them. Governments and organisations that do this successfully are perceived as trustworthy by the public while earning the respect of journalists and commentators who are so often confronted with nothing but spin.
In a recent interview I did with 3AW Commentator and Presenter Neil Mitchell, spin was his number one gripe. Worse still, excess spin just encourages journalists and media outlets to go harder to find the ‘real story’.
Being clear, concise and honest is the only way to tell the story these days. You may lose a bit of bit of shine from the paintwork when things go negative, but with the right mix of transparency, timing and training, the house will remain intact.
Steve Carey has 35 years TV experience. He is Founding Partner of Newsflash Media which deals in media training and crisis management. He is a former Director of News for 7 Melbourne, and former Supervising Producer of Today Tonight.
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