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Building media relationships: two-way panic

By Richard Stanton - posted Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Media relations are a two-way process. Media need sources and sources need media. Media relationships are built strategically around trust and reliability, usually over a long period of time. Media relations practitioners spend a lot of time thinking about how they can get the media interested in their client’s issues and events. But on the other side of the wall, the media is thinking about how it can get information about issues and events from clients, or if they have them, the client’s media relations expert.

An interesting example of the media seeking information but getting publicly frustrated and more irritated by its unavailability occurred in Sydney recently. The event was the partial subsidence of land above a road tunnel being constructed under the suburb of Lane Cove. The collapse caused a block of apartments directly above the tunnel to break up and for part of them to fall into the hole that had been created by the subsidence. Heavy peak hour morning traffic on the adjoining Epping Road was being diverted around the site as Epping Road remained closed.

A leading Sydney radio broadcaster, Alan Jones, claimed on his early morning program that he had arranged for the NSW state premier, Mr Morris Iemma, to contact the program at 7.10 that morning to discuss the issue of roads and the associated tunnel problems around Sydney (this was at a time when Sydney motorists refused to pay a toll to use a newly opened underground road known as the Cross City tunnel).


At 7.15am, when Mr Iemma had not contacted Mr Jones, he began to question why the premier was unavailable and why he had not contacted the station as promised. Jones continued for some minutes during the course of the program to ask where the premier was and to state that he had “disappeared”. A few moments later he announced the premier was attending a Ramadan breakfast in Lakemba (a Sydney suburb with a large Middle Eastern population). He went on to say it was probably lucky the premier was there and not on the radio because he would get a better reception in Lakemba than he would have had he come on air to talk about tunnels collapsing and the generally poor state of the roads in Sydney.

There are a number of things that are important about this anecdote that are related to media framing and media relationship building.

Alan Jones is one of Sydney’s leading broadcasters with a large audience share in the prime time breakfast slot from Monday to Friday. His radio station 2GB has a talk-show format and a strong relationship with listeners through the provision of talk-back access. Mr Jones is not a supporter of the state Labor Government in New South Wales, but had respect for the premier Mr Bob Carr before he resigned from office as the state’s longest serving premier some months before the collapse of the road tunnel. He showed less respect for Mr Iemma.

Over a long period of time, through his program, Mr Jones has suggested a dislike for some ethnic groups whom he argued, showed their lack of respect for the multicultural policy of the NSW government. So on one level, there is a pointed attack being made on the premier for paying attention to the issues that concern middle eastern groups - terrorism and new security legislation, - while ignoring what Jones considered more important issues: “real” problems that affected motorists and the commuting public.

On a second level - the media information seeking level - this example provides evidence of the two-way panic relationship that exists between the media and those from whom it seeks information. While Mr Jones was content to have built a relationship with former premier Bob Carr which saw Mr Carr talking on air most mornings of the week, keeping Mr Jones’s listeners directly informed, the same has not been established with Mr Carr’s successor.

Mr Carr and Mr Iemma have very different media strategies. While Mr Carr was open and accessible and willing to talk to most metropolitan media every day of the week, including Saturdays and Sundays, Mr Iemma has a different strategy. For Mr Iemma, other stakeholders such as community groups, organisations and schools, are of equal importance to him as the media stakeholders. Where government business is concerned, Mr Iemma is inclined to give the media information after he has provided it to other equally important stakeholders.


The problem for Mr Iemma is that the media functions well only when supplied with information about issues and events. In the case of the collapsed road tunnel, there was sufficient information for listeners to make immediate decisions about travel arrangements, but it could be claimed that Mr Jones seemed to seek to politicise it, so appearing to get the premier to take some responsibility for the event.

For the purposes of acting as a source of information, Mr Jones did not need a dialogue with the premier. The relevant spokesman for roads or transport could have supplied everything that was needed. But for Mr Jones and other high profile media people, the issue was also one of responsibility and leadership, and it was also one of urgency. By failing to speak to Mr Jones that morning, Mr Iemma allowed him the opportunity to play on the prejudices of his listeners relating to the poor record of infrastructure development undertaken by the state government during its tenure.

The question is one of how best to balance a relationship so that it will not lead a media commentator to imply that there is some urgency or panic attached to an issue or event. In the example, Mr Jones also suggested Mr Iemma’s media “minders” should have contacted him. It could be claimed that the general implication or tone of Mr Jones’ on-air statements was that the state government of NSW is taking no responsibility for actions nor showing any “real” leadership and that Mr Jones was able to frame the road tunnel issue in these political terms because he had developed a specific perception of the premier.

We cannot draw an assumption about the relationship that existed between the premier and the broadcaster. We can however conclude that while there may be some relationship building strategy in place within the premier’s office, at the time of the road tunnel collapse it was not evident that it was working.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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