It goes without saying that the media landscape over the last decade has changed rather drastically as a result of the Internet and social media. It has shifted the way people source news and information and how they communicate with one another. The Internet was very much a ‘game changer’, and it didn’t take long for traditional mainstream media to adopt an online presence in response to the overwhelming shift in how people were now accessing information (Broom & Sha, 2013).
Public relations practitioners are now faced with the challenge of dealing with audiences that have become increasingly fragmented and far more active in how they source and engage with the media (Broom & Sha, 2013). One of major challenges for PR practitioners in this new landscape is to manage media content across numerous platforms. They also need to be highly cognisant of the values associated with the news coverage in order to cut through the infinite volume of information that confronts the public every day. News and information is more likely to harness interest and attention if it is a human-interest story, is close to home, involves conflict, is unusual or remarkable, or has significant impact or consequences (McLean & Phillips, 2012).
Today’s journalists are under pressure to constantly generate stories, particularly in a 24/7 news cycle. As a result, they are now turning to PR practitioners to source content. This offers PR practitioners an opportunity to have greater input into the process of developing content for use through various media channels. John Schwartz (2005) from the Swinburne University of Technology, is dismayed at how mass media in Australia is so concentrated. He says that even though we are living in an information age, and are promised greater diversity and opinion, ‘…the reality is that mainstream audiences are still getting most of their information from very few – nonetheless very powerful – voices’. Take media tycoon Rupert Murdoch for example – he dominates news readership in Australia with over 70% of readers (Schwartz, 2005). It’s further reflected by the fact that Australia also only has three main free to air television networks. Such a strong concentration allows the mass media to set the agenda by shaping the extent to which the public considers an issue to be important. In public relations this is referred to as the agenda setting, and it looks at how the mass media selects and prioritises news (Johnson & Sheehan, 2014).
An example of agenda setting at play is the recent power blackout that that affected entire state of South Australia.
The story dominated coverage across all forms of mainstream media, and much of the discussion in the aftermath of the event was devoted to the conflicting views amongst key politicians as to how and why it occurred. Australian Senator Nick Xenophon and National Party leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, attributed the blame to the state’s transition to renewable energy sources (Riordan & Evans, 2016). Mr Joyce, ‘who has previously been critical of clean energy’, said the state was overly reliant on renewables and wind power (Riordan & Evans, 2016). This he claims resulted in the electricity grid becoming less resilient (Ten Network Holdings, 2016). South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill took a swipe at Joyce’s comments labelling them as ‘ignorant’ and told the ABC, ‘when there’s a crisis people pull out their agendas…Barnaby hates wind power so he pulls that out’ (Hutchens, 2016).
David Washington (2016), reporter from Indaily, said that South Australians should feel ‘aggrieved’ by the political debates – at both the State and Federal level – that took place in the week following the event, ‘… our political class is no longer paying heed to the facts – rather they prefer to cherrypick fact-like pieces of information, to suit their particular ideology or political purpose’. In other words, what Washington is effectively saying is the motives of people like Barnaby Joyce are driven by their own personal agenda.
One of several collapsed pylons (Government News, 2016)
The commentary surrounding the power blackout included opinions and views from numerous industry experts, politicians and journalists – many of whom were driven by their own agenda. The story gained traction as it contained many of the news values mentioned earlier. It was local, significant in terms of its reach and impact (affected the entire state), remarkable in nature (natural disaster) and involved conflicting views (amongst politicians) as to the cause. With information coming from all directions, PR practitioners play a vital role in ensuring that they keep abreast of the dialogue that is taking place. By working closely with journalists and editors, PR practitioners can help develop content and strategies that align with both the discussion and the relevant publics.
Broom, G & Sha, B 2013, Effective public relations, 11th edn, Pearson Education Limited, England.
Johnston, J & Sheehan M 2014, Public relations theory and practice, 4th edn, Allen & Unwin, NSW.
McLean and Phillips, (2012). ‘Engaging with the media’, in J. Chia & G. Synnott (eds), An introduction to public relations and communication management, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, VIC.
News Video 2016, South Australian weather: widespread blackout in Adelaide as storm hits state, September 28, viewed 18 October 2016, video link
Schwartz, J 2005, ‘Pot and prejudice: media coverage of the Corby saga’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, Issue 145, pp 138-145.
Ten Network Holdings Limited 2016, National news: wind war, Ten Network Holdings Limited, viewed 15 October 2016, Link to video clip
World News 2016, SA Storms: entire state of South Australia loses power, 28 September, viewed 22 October 2016, Link to video clip