31 August 2006

The media and the message

[This is the second of a three part series looking at public opinion polling and provincial government media relations. In the first installment - Playing the numbers - we looked at the broad issue of news releases output and content. In the second, we'll look at the media relations activity for the provincial government. In the last installment - The perils of polling - we'll pull the whole thing together and take a look at why government does what it does.]

All those news releases issued by government contain messages it wants you to receive. The messages are usually simple: All is well; there's a new school or hospital; another problem has been solved; the Premier is doing a marvelous job.

Simple messages are easier to retain and when they touch on strong emotions they are even more potent. It's no accident, for example, that in tackling the federal government over a few billion dollars in additional transfer payments, Danny Williams kept his core message simple: I am fighting for you to get what is rightfully yours; untrustworthy foreigners are trying to rob us once again.

Details were irrelevant and ultimately distracting from Williams' purpose. He simply wanted overwhelming popular support. Framing the entire discussion in strongly emotional terms designed to play on popular images of a province looted by evil foreigners ensured that he would command unquestioned and unquestioning support from virtually everyone in the province.

He got it. Public opinion polls done for the Williams' government, and later released only under duress, showed public support approaching every person in the province.

However, issuing news releases and framing simple messages are not enough. The messages have to be communicated to the audience.

If we wanted to sell widgets, we'd likely buy advertising and run as many ads as we could afford on television and radio and in print. The more people see of the same message the more likely they are to retain it, unless the message is a complete affront to their moral sensibilities.

Repetition is the key.

The impact of news media

While paid advertising works just fine to sell cars, for example, it lacks the inherent credibility to persuade the same car buyer that his or her government is doing a splendid job. No matter how many times people saw the television spot lauding the party of the moment, only the most hardcore of the party's supporters would swallow it unquestioningly.

News reporting, though, is different. According to some research, people get about 60 to 70% of their information about the world from news media and the electronic media, especially television, is by far the dominant information source. People tend to accept what they see reported as being factual and more often than not it is. So while a 30 second television spot announcing a new school would be largely ignored or treated with suspicion, having Fred Hutton report the same information would get an entirely different reaction.

The power of news is why advertisers desperately try to get their product featured in news coverage. For the typical marketer, public relations is code for unpaid media coverage and all the influence that brings. And for government, news releases are a way of communicating to their audiences using radio and television stations and newspapers. They are called news media because they are a medium - a conduit - through which information flows.

The limited local market

Over the past decade, the news media landscape has changed dramatically in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mergers, budget cuts and changes in how people take news have reduced the entire media environment to a handful of newsrooms.

There are only two dominant ones, the ones with the biggest daily audience: NTV and the four radio channels operated by Steele Communications as some part of the VOCM organization.

Coincidentally, those two outlets are also the ones that do very little - if any - investigative reporting. Both NTV and VOCM give the news with little interpretation or analysis. There's absolutely nothing wrong with their approach, but in a marketplace where they are the unquestioned behemoths, they are also uniquely useful to a government that would like to get its version of events to as many people as possible.

VOCM offers the added bonus of eight hours of free airtime through its talk-radio shows. As Bond Papers noted in April, the provincial government spends an inordinate amount of energy on what we derisively called "yack radio".

During polling periods there is a noticeable increase in the number of calls from government politicians, some of whom are heard from so seldom their pictures were likely to appear on a milk carton. They call, say their piece and, in the case of cabinet ministers, are likely to have their comments turned into news clips that will be repeated for the next 24 hours.

Repetition is the key.

Williams' approach: not all newsrooms are equal

One example from the last polling period indicate not only the value government politicians see in outlets like VOCM but also the varied way they treat news organizations based on audience share.

In the wake of the Ruelokke decision, Danny Williams was silent. However, Open Line host and veteran newsman Randy Simms observed that one news release from government was little more than nine paragraphs telling that a series of meetings had been held and that the major agreement was to continue meeting. There was no news at all in it and Simms pointed it out, honestly and fairly.

No sooner had he made the remarks than the Premier appeared on the line, interrupting what he himself described as an important meeting. Williams disputed Simms assertion but then found himself being asked about other issues, including Ruelokke. That was the first time we heard Williams criticize Mr. Justice Raymond Halley personally for his ruling.

Other media - whom Williams had been avoiding - were understandably annoyed. His response was to grant interviews on Ruelokke but how he handled them is revealing. Ordinarily a busy politician will handle reporters in a group, commonly known as a scrum. All get to ask questions and all share the results.

Williams broke up the requests. He granted The Telegram's Craig Jackson a telephone interview. CBC Radio and CBC television got a separate scrum in the lobby of Confederation Building. Mike Rossiter and Chris O'Neill-Yates pressed Williams with tough but fair questions, however their questions and Williams' replies would only be carried on their own outlets with their comparatively small audiences.

As for NTV, Williams went to the studio on Logy Bay Road for a sit-down interview and what amounted to five minutes of free airtime to the largest news audience in the province. The questions, from Mike Connors, were straightforward, professional and factual but nowhere near as challenging as the others.

Williams got to present his own messages clearly and unfiltered to the largest audiences. By handling the interviews separately he guaranteed that NTV and VOCM did not have access to his responses to questions they didn't ask, responses that came from questions that challenged his fundamental messages.

Drawing it together

Of all the organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government never has to struggle to make news. Money, power and celebrity all make news routinely.

In the first installment we demonstrated that there is a correlation between government news release output and polling periods and also a correlation between good news release and polling periods.

But a more detailed assessment suggests that the provincial government also varies its approach to news media based on each newsroom's ability not only to reach an audience but provide government with as much chance as possible of presenting its own messages. The current administration, like its predecessors back to 1996, issue news releases in a pattern related to CRA's polling and deploy supporters in a pattern designed to ensure that its messages are communicated to the largest audience possible with as little filtering as possible.

Repetition is the key to influencing opinion.

Beyond mere repetition, the example presented above shows the value the Premier places on VOCM as a means of influencing public opinion. His subsequent handling of other news media interviews on the Ruelokke case demonstrates an effort to manage the message flow.

The current administration has an advantage its immediate predecessor lacked: an impotent opposition that is unable to grasp what is being done and to deploy its own efforts to counteract the government's activities. It's politics, after all and they have every right to do that. Pointing out that the Premier is trying to goose polls is almost meaningless.

And if there is any lingering doubt about the Williams' administration efforts to influence polls, check for yourself. Listen to yack radio and see how many cabinet ministers are calling in this, the week after polling stopped. Take a look at the government website and notice how few releases are being issued compared to previous weeks.

Tomorrow, we'll wrap up the series with a look at the CRA polling itself and what impact the government's playing with numbers has on public policy and political dialogue in the province.