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Panel talks to Rappaport Fellows on challenges of new media environment

June 15, 2011  – Rapidly changing technologies are making government-media relations much more complex, a panel of government communications specialists told a meeting of the 2011 Rappaport Fellows in Law and Public Policy on June 15.

“The ubiquity of media is growing exponentially every day,” said Susan Elsbree, Director of Communications for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. With the advent of social media, “Everyone is a reporter.” It’s a world in which government agencies can face a wider array of demands for information, and in which stories can break almost anywhere — as easily on a blog like UniversalHub as in a mainstream media outlet.

From left, Brendan Ryan, Communications Director for Governor Deval Patrick, Corey Welford, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Martha Coakley, and Susan Elsbree, Director of Communications for the Boston Redevelopment Authority

From left, Corey Welford, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Martha Coakley, Brendan Ryan, Communications Director for Governor Deval Patrick, and Susan Elsbree, Director of Communications for the Boston Redevelopment Authority

Public expectations about openness of government agencies have also ratcheted substantially. Because of the shift in demand, Elsbree told the fellows, “We need to put more information out in the public domain than we did ten years ago.”

It’s not just the demand for information that has increased: the pace of the news cycle has also accelerated. Where communications staff may once have been able to leave the office and start again the next morning, said Corey Welford, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Martha Coakley, “You can’t do that anymore. It’s become a twenty-four hour business.”

Add to this a significant decline in the depth of news coverage. Major newspapers and broadcasters have been forced to make deep cuts in their news-gathering staff.  “The media landscape is wider, but also shallower,” said Brendan Ryan, Communications Director for Governor Deval Patrick. “There are fewer reporters that are really knowledgeable in a particular subject area.”

The result is an noiser environment in which public agencies can have difficulty in getting their message across to the public.  But it is possible “to break through the clutter,” the panelists agreed. Close monitoring of social media, and a quick response to emerging stories, is critical. Agencies also have to spend more time explaining policy to media representatives who may not have the background of old-style beat reporters.

But it’s also important to have a clear sense of longer-term communication goals. “It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day response,” said Ryan. “You have to force yourself to take a longer term view.” Welford agreed: “Keep your eye on the ball, and try to emphasize the positive things that your office is doing.”

Rappaport Fellows, Joy Spezeski (left) and David Linhart, during the roundtable session.

Rappaport Fellows, Joy Spezeski (left) and David Linhart, during the roundtable session.

Communications specialists should also cultivate a reputation for candor and reliability. It isn’t necessary to have an immediate answer to every query, said Elsbree. “You get credit for being out there and being willing to take questions, even if you say you have to get back to them.” An agency can also build credibility by being forthright about errors. “We all make mistakes,” Welford added. “You just have to own up to them, and people will respect you for that.”

Despite the challenges — or perhaps because of them – all three panelists agreed that the work of a communications specialist was often exciting. Although much news coverage gives a negative portrayal of the public sector, “most people in government are there for the right reasons,” Elsbree said. Communications staff can also play a critical role in influencing the content of public policy. “There are a lot of great ideas in government,” said Ryan. “But if we can’t explain why it matters, it’s a waste of time. How you talk about a policy is as important as the policy itself.”

“It’s a great job,” agreed Welford. “You get to work with smart people who are doing great things.”  The evening session was part of a weekly series that is organized for Rappport Fellows to complement their internships in state and local government offices over the summer months.

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