ITL #445 Resetting media boundaries: how Stevie G and Gladys B killed the presser

1 month, 1 week ago

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The press conference is an invention of, and convention from, a bygone media era, whose ubiquity as a staple for information relay is dying. By Gerry McCusker.



At face value, former New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and ex-Liverpool FC star Steven Gerrard don’t have much in common.

One was until her recent resignation managing the state of New South Wales through the ravages of covid while the other manages Glasgow Rangers FC across a couple of Europe-based leagues and tournaments.

Look more closely, however, and both have pioneered a new approach to media management; one that seemingly aims to diminish direct news outlet access and, subsequently, better control the message and reputation outcomes for both Steve and Glad. It also signals a deepening fault-line in the rapport between brands and news outlets.

Both the NSW government and Rangers – like Donald Trump did before them –  recently reset the boundaries around their press conferences, while signalling a shift in the power dynamics between information provision, news reporting and reputation management. These ‘re-sets’ have been met with concern, suspicion and derision (mainly from each brands’ detractors or direct opponents, plus an unsettled and marginalisation-fearing media).

Delightful media wrangling

As author, I must declare possible biases; I’m a Victorian but have little time for belittling, cross-border ‘biffo'. Re Rangers, I’m a devotee of Glasgow Celtic with long-held concerns about Rangers' longstanding bias problems and general superciliousness.

Yet neither disclosure prevents me, a PR of 30+ years standing, from talking objectively about the principles [and implications] at play in these new approaches to media wrangling.  Nor do they mask my delight – yes delight – that two established brands have finally decided to deflate the media’s over-blown sense of entitlement, while putting them on notice they’re no longer mandatory for how brands will communicate with key stakeholders.

So, ONLY in this PR regard do I declare myself a NSW Gov fan and a ‘Gers one, too!

How NSW health killed the presser

For those outside Australia, w/c 13 September 20121 saw NSW Health’s media team reveal that daily, live covid press updates will no longer go ahead. Instead, stakeholders’ hunger for information would be replaced with daily videos showing current figures and information. They are not withholding information per se, yet are heralding new formats and processes for how they're willing to release it. Against media accusations that Gladys and her government were ducking proper media scrutiny, a prompt retort insisted that NSW "prides itself on having the most transparent information available” and that key personnel would subsequently make live appearances on a “needs basis”. This might be about better resource management.

It sounds assertive and practical to me: Modern ‘pressers’ see predictably tense exchanges between eggshell-treading brands and gotcha-obsessed media! Brand-side, it consumes time and, often, generates more questions than it can realistically hope to answer.

Of course, deploying a Web2.0 version of an old Video News Release (VNR) methodology (dating back to the early 1990's), makes good sense for crisis brands looking to release key messages, especially about health advice, without the filter of editorial bias, speculation or sensationalism. 

There’s plenty of evidence that the media has long been ‘spinning’ stories and hijacking pressers (i.e. adding interpretation or speculation) to suit its own ends; and those aims are not always ethical or noble. So while modern brands have long had the technologies to act as their own mini-media channels, few have had the imagination or cojones to effect a new tilt in their relationships with 'the media'.

Berejiklian’s health department decided it would continue with info-provision, albeit in a more streamlined way that means cutting out the media middlemen for mid-level updates.

How Rangers killed the presser

Over in Scotland, Rangers’ redrafting of ‘presser protocols’ seems more commercially driven. Their relationship with sports titles has long been categorised as a kinda ‘carrot and stick’ style of rapport; write nicely about us and all will be well. Criticise and you’re banned (as the BBC, The Herald, The Times and SKY Sports can attest).

Now, Rangers, pre- and post-2012 liquidation, has had fair-to-good treatment from Scottish media. A type of reportage dubbed ‘succulent lamb journalism’ passed into local parlance due to the largesse of former owner Sir David Murray who was said to have offered lifestyle perks for selected mainstream media scribes who penned fawning and flattering pieces of PR puffery. 

But in April 2021, under the reins of a new, more media-militant PR chief called David Graham, Rangers announced a ‘Media Partnership’ pay-for-presser-access programme. It’s a de facto levy of £25,000 for media to send one reporter and one photographer to attend matches and media conferences. The lead package offers five exclusive interviews, including a face-to-face with Steven Gerrard, with lower-cost access packages also available. While mainstream media meekly laments this new ‘cash-for-comments’ scheme, some fan media, essentially fan-bloggers and podcasters following the Club, have paid the required dues and happily attend club ‘pressers’, throwing comparably tame questions and queries as those long offered by many supines among Scotland’s sports hacks. News media are indignant they’re prevented from attending the pressers – most won’t pay up – instead being forced to cobble stories from Rangers TV’s digital feed of club and manager's virtual press conferences.

Brand journalism, the game's just starting

You can speculate as to why some brands adopt a non-default approach to how their moves are reported or spun by the media: Disgust at how truth is misrepresented or cast; desire to mask unflattering realities and fear of a news agenda hooked on carping negativity.

Virtual or dial-in 'pressers' allow a wider range of news media to dial in and remotely access information on news and story developments. Instant relay of digital assets and files can be driven via online media briefing platforms, which offer significant economic, logistical and time savings both for client and media organisations alike.

And truly, modern presser etiquette is a lot less respectful with some headline-hungry journos harassing and hectoring spokespeople; just ask Naomi Osaka! The price of such 'grillings' was payable back when media was the only message amplification tool in town. 

But with direct-to-stakeholder channels and social channels now allowing brands to message the masses (without media interpretation and spin being added), some brands question whether the cost, economic and reputational, of putting their people through that mill stacks up.

Brands who shun ‘open pressers’ can build some immunity against overtly critical or speculative questions about, say, their business dealings or finances and performance shortcomings amid tough times. Now I’m certainly not advocating brands become less accountable for their errors or wrongdoings, but such issues can be now addressed more directly without the contextual content circus that today’s media pressers have become. 

Without seeking to exclude independent media from getting access to facts pertaining to any story of interest, I do prescribe clients to a least explore brand journalism. This allows them to tell their side of stories, even facing up to their 'bads', without editorial condemnation.

Look, I'm not for the removal of ethical accountability for 'bad brands'. But I am against clients exposing themselves to endless, petty hectoring from a profession that’s obsessed with vilifying unconfirmed whiffs of wrongdoing, rather than the fact-based evidence of it.

Gladys B and Stevie G at the vanguard

Stevie Gee and Gladys B are not alone in moving to better-protect, leverage or even monetise their news content; many organisations have developed proprietary media channels that speak directly to their key stakeholders. Coca-Cola, Intel and Microsoft are doing it.

Most lifestyle and sports brands now have tech-smart, in-house graphics and broadcast studios that allow them to ‘produce’ live action – and replay – content feeds when there’s key news to communicate. Brands are becoming media originators in their own right and their fans and loyal stakeholders are becoming amplifiers and sharers of that content (which some disparagingly cast as a mix of public relations and propaganda).

Media has dictated its terms and had it its own way for a very long time, but that is changing. And while it’s no wonder that traditional media outlets feel threatened by moves to curtail or control their access to information, the issue becomes much trickier for brands, like government agencies, whose content isn’t theirs but belongs to the wider communities to whom they’re responsible. The 'presser' is currently in an 'evolutionary' phase.

Media will insist that press conferences are a cornerstone to delivering the accountability and transparency that they, as alleged/acclaimed custodians of the public interest, demand and insist upon. But how and when does the media publicly address its own shameful issues of accountability, ethics and probity just as it demands other brands and organisations do?  What would an open and transparent presser for some of the world’s least accountable media titles look like? You know, the kind of outlets and writers who, every day, casually pass off damaging or inaccurate gossip, innuendo and prosecutorial supposition as, say, hard facts?

Definitely not a fan

Earlier, I deployed a tabloid-like deceit in my headline to get attention, but that’s an accepted media malpractice, right? I don’t believe that Gladys B and Stevie G have killed the press conference. Neither am I a fan of Rangers or their daft ‘cash-for-comment’ scheme.

However, I do commend both brands for re-thinking the default of running ‘pressers’ when technologies now offer new, more direct and more economical ways to provide information to key stakeholders. The press conference is an invention of, and convention from, a bygone media era, whose ubiquity as a staple for information relay is dying.

Finally, I absolutely support any brands, especially those mid-crisis, to find innovative ways to directly and more expediently provide essential facts and information to key stakeholders affected by their crisis. Pressers consume a lot of time and energy that could be better spent in remedying the actual 'Comms crises’ faced by affected stakeholders.

That media should remain a key part of the news reporting process is fine by me.

But the days of them thinking THEY ARE THAT PROCESS have, I tell you, long passed.


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The Author

Gerry McCusker

Gerry McCusker is the owner of The Drill Crisis Simulator, and author of ‘Public Relations Disasters’.

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