Media & PR practitioners no longer control the oxygen valve

A classic ploy by media and PR professionals to kill an unwanted issue has been to ‘deny it oxygen’ – refusing to comment or engage on the topic publicly, via news media or other channels.

The approach has traditionally worked very effectively for both public sector and commercial communicators. Devoid of any official information, or even denials, many journalists would quickly drop a potential story in favour of topical issues where information was available, in order to meet their tight deadlines.

Only journalists with the time and their editors’ permission to conduct an investigation over a significant period of time were able to really pursue matters where organisations denied them oxygen, to uncover inappropriate behaviour, wrong-doing or even simple mistakes.

Communicators in organisations still employ the oxygen deprivation technique – refusing to speak to journalists, issuing bland statements which say nothing newsworthy or simply denying that an incident has taken place.

In some respects the technique has actually become more effective, with a faster news cycle meaning there’s fewer and fewer journalists with the time or editorial support to pursue issues down the rabbit hole.

However with the change in the composition of the media – from a primarily high-cost professionalised workforce to essentially anyone with internet access and the ability to create a Facebook page, blog or video – media and PR professionals are beginning to realise that they no longer control the oxygen valve.

Today it only takes a single individual with the attitude or time to take on a large organisation and pierce the veil of silence.

We’ve seen this occur multiple times, overseas and in Australia, the Lewinsky scandal, the Vodafail initiative, the failure of the UK super-injunction system, the exposure of systematic corruption in the Chinese Communist Party by Weibo users (the equivalent of Twitter).

These are simply the tip of a growing iceberg of examples where people, individually or collectively, are able to find their own sources of oxygen independent to the entities they are investigating.

Today media and communications professionals no longer control the oxygen valve. Individuals can share and reflect on information and rumours online through communities, gaining the oxygen and support they need from peers. They can quickly co-ordinate efforts to learn more, interrogate data and quickly and cheaply collate diverse reports into a single picture of wrongdoing.

I don’t think this trend is fully understood yet in Australia’s public sector. I still talk to communications and media professionals working in Australian government agencies or Ministerial offices who still believe they control the oxygen valve – they can make any story go away by refusing to engage.

Well yes – sometimes they still can do this, where the matter is of low interest or importance. However increasingly they can no longer shut off the oxygen flow.

Media professionals, wherever they work, need to recognise the new reality. A person with an internet connection, social media and search tools, can put together a volunteer coalition of supporters, or piece together a jigsaw of innocuous information into an incriminating picture.

The tools of journalism are no longer simply in the hands of a limited number of professional journalists, who recognise that their long-term interests are sometimes served by co-operating in keeping a story quiet, so that they will continue to get access to key people, information and leaks.

Today citizens are journalists – they are documenting the events in their lives and the lives of people around them. They act in their own short-term interests, rather than in the interests of a publication and while every story and issue won’t gain traction, enough will.

Any media, PR or other communications professional who believes that they still have the ability to shut down almost any conversation, turning off the oxygen valve, is both deluding themselves and potentially damaging the organisation they work for.

Instead communicators need to consider new approaches – engaging with social media to manage issues, rather than simply trying to shut them down. They need to build a new balance in communications, learn techniques from customer service professionals to help them address concerns, rather than simply try to bluff their way through a crisis.

Over the next few years it will become obvious which organisations have learnt new ways to engage with a more active communities and customers, and very, very obvious which organisations have not.

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