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September 21, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Sleeping with the enemy

Why press secretaries and journalists need to get along.

Press secretaries. They are both a help and a hindrance to the lowly journalist. They are the gatekeepers of information, and they are the first person a journalist needs to call to arrange any sort of interview with any sort of government minister.

You don’t often see them, those press secretaries. They’re off working behind closed doors, ensuring that government ministers are saying the right things to journalists and the public.

The relationship that exists between journalists and press secretaries is perplexing, to say the least. It can be both cooperative and confrontational.

All at once.

As much as journalists may express an intense dislike for press secretaries and communications managers, the fact of the matter is that journalists rely on those pesky communications people for official comment, stories and interviews with those who hold offices of power and authority.

Communications is big business. It is becoming more and more commonplace for businesses, companies and organisations to employ a communications manager or advisor. Universities, government departments, NGOs and all sorts of other orgainisations with a public presence have communications people.

Alan Samson, a lecturer in journalism at Massey University in Wellington, and a former journalist, says that the development of the communications industry has been inevitable.

“Half of me wants to say that there’s no need for it at all and it’s all crap, and in the old days people could go straight to the source and it was fine. But the reality is that in big bureaucracies that have grown today, it’s inevitable that you do have this kind of thing.”

Presenting a good face to the public, avoiding PR disasters, and making the best of questionable situations are just some of the tasks of communications people. A positive relationship with the media and journalists obviously helps with this.

What is a press secretary?

A press secretary is, for the purposes of simplification, a government minister’s communications manager or advisor. It’s their job to fire emails off to journalists with the minister’s repsonses to media queries, arrange interviews, and make sure the minister is following the government line in his or her communications with the public, among other tasks.

The Career Services website says that press secretaries “advise ministers on how to deal with the media, and help them to communicate government policy and decisions to the wider public.”

Jake Quinn, a former press secretary, communications advisor and radio broadcaster, currently enrolled in an MA in Politics at Auckland University, describes the multitude of tasks assigned to a press secretary.

“The primary role of a press sec is to draft press statements, to write and edit speech notes, to regularly speak with journalists, to brief the minister and his or her staff on media issues and to travel with the minister when required,” he says.

“Press secs also act as a key conduit between the minister’s office and the Government Departments for which the minister is responsible. Press secretaries are expected to keep in regular contact with the Prime Minister’s office and to ensure that his or her minister’s communications with the public are more or less consistent with the wider government messages and themes as articulated by the leadership team.”

Kathy Cumming was a media adviser for a minister in the last Labour administration, and is currently doing media and communications work for Greenpeace. She says that press secretaries are there “basically to make their minister and the government of the day look good.

“I think press secretaries are there to foresee and avoid PR disasters and to exploit PR opportunities,” she says.

“They are there to analyse how events or announcements will look to the public and to maximise the positive. And to translate a whole
of bureaucratic blah into something digestable and amenable to the public.”

Samson has a slightly different interpretation of the role of press secretaries.

“I’ve had a fair bit of dealing with press secretaries, some of my best friends became press secretaries. I just wouldn’t like my daughter to marry one,” he laughs.

“They have lots of roles, but a key part of that role is in putting the face of their minister or their MP before the public. In an unkind way you could say their role is to put a good face of their minister or MP before the public, which is the part that I rebel at.

“It’s the part of PR that I find very difficult to deal with, because a journalist’s role is fundamentally about truth, or aspiring towards truth anyway. And if you’re talking about putting the best face of someone before the public that’s not necessarily a true face,” Samson says.

What’s the point?

Why do ministers even need people to manage their communications? Surely they can just do it themselves?

Quinn says “ministers need press secretariesto do the grunt work that they simply don’t have time to do themselves.

“Ministers, especially those with big portfolios like Finance, Health, Education, Justice, Transport, Social Development or Economic Development, are incredibly busy people, generally working between 12 and 16 hours a day. They need a decent-sized staff to help them be prepared for and organise long days of travel, meetings, briefings, House duties—legislation speeches, answering oral questions from the opposition—media interviews and electorate work,” he says.

“While some Ministers do write many of their own speeches and press releases, if they all did there wouldn’t be much time left to actually govern.”

Cumming says press secretaries are important because they act as a kind of “filter” for ministers.

“[Ministers] don’t have the time nor head space to deal with media inquiries—of which there are many. They need that filter that asks the question: shall we make this [or] allow this to be an issue, and how will the viewing [or] reading public see this? How does this look to the electorate? How can we make this look good to the electorate?”
Cumming says that a good press secretary “behaves as the filter, then advises accordingly.

“They’re also important to ensure the government’s key messages are getting through; that there is an element of consistency,” she says.

While Samson says he’d “love it” if press secretaries were done away with, this is unlikely to ever happen.

“The reality is that’s not going to happen and it probably wouldn’t work for them, just on the basis of how busy they are, they’re not on hand to answer calls all the time.

“A bigger concern is for press secretaries to think about how they deal with reporters and not try to find the best response, but work in a way that can get the reporter to talk to the relevant person when suitable for both parties. The PR people who do that generally function very well.”

Estranged lovers?

The relationship between press secretaries and journalists can vary “tremendously”, says Samson.

“[In] some places relations are very good, often it’s not. There’s a lot of resentment from reporters about PR; they feel like they’re being pushed round corners or being kept from the truth or just being duck-shoved. A lot of press secretaries I know think that journalists are very demanding and snap their fingers and want, want, want instant information at a given time and think that they deserve a credible amount of work from press secretaries at 4.55pm in the evening. There’s a lot of resentment both ways.”

Cumming agrees that the relationship between journalists and press secretaries can be both cooperative and combative.

“It can be absolutely either. And on any given day, it’s usually one or the other. You’re generally talking about two very bolshy people [the journalist and the press secretary]. The best thing a press secretary can do is work to ensure all these relationships are cooperative, but at the same time, stand their ground,” Cumming says.

“Diplomacy is a good skill in a press secretary, because often you’ll just feel like telling the journo to piss off. But at the end of the day, they are required to make you look good in your job, and vice versa.”

Quinn describes the relationship between press secretaries and journalists as “happily symbiotic but with a healthy dose of scepticism on each other’s part.” It’s a relationship he says is based on good faith.

“Both have what the other wants.

“The press sec can speak on behalf of the minister and provides them with a constant trickle of news stories. The journo in turn gives the minister publicity and lets the public know what they are—or are not—doing.

“However, behind the cooperative face value—press secs are generally friendly with journalists and frequently socialise with them—there is a more combative side to the relationship because press secretaries and journalists have competing angles and interests,” he says.

“The journo wants ‘the story’ and the press sec would like it to be a positive story about their guy and in some cases negative about their opponent. Journos tend to be, by default, mildly suspicious of power and what they call ‘spin’ coming out of ministers’ offices, and press secretaries realise this and are in turn mildly suspicious that the journalist is looking for a negative or ‘gotcha’ angle.”

A story that paints the government in a bad light will always win out over a story about a minister doing good. That’s the nature of the beast that is the news media. That’s the difficulty for the press secretary to negotiate.

Room for improvement?

Given the reliance of press secretaries on journalists for their job, and vice versa, Samson thinks there is room for greater understanding between the two professions.

“There is room for more understanding. I’m not talking about absolutes here; a lot of reporters need to learn about courtesy and how to approach people politely and not expect instant answers,” he explains.

“Some reporters need to do their homework before they go in to these places… Sometimes reporters are told a story and accept that it is true without checking and put this in a very strong way to a PR team or PR people, expect them to answer. That’s a mistake. They should use their heads a bit and think before they go in hard whether they’ve got the right story.”

Press secretaries should also take heed of Samson’s advice.

“Press secretaries, especially press secretaries at parliament, need to learn that the MPs they are working for are servants of the public, and that the press has a very legitimate role in asking hard questions.”

Ultimately, in a democratic society, it the the journalist’s duty to ask the tough questions.

“It is a key role of the press to challenge those in authority and to watch over those in authority,” Samson says.

“And if MPs or anyone in authority forgets that role or ignores that role, they do it at their peril in the long run. We live in a democracy and that is the role of the press.”

By working cooperatively, press secretaries and journalists can together better serve the public. It is to the public that the government is accountable. And it is to the media that the public turns to provide that information of political importance.

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Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

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