News editor of the Cape Argus, Natasha Joseph, is frustrated with those people whose job it is to communicate and simply don’t do it.
Some years ago, in my former life as a small-town dweller avoiding big-city responsibilities, I worked as a communications officer for Rhodes University. Part of this job entailed providing spin doctoring services as and when they were needed. In other words, I was a spokesperson.
My role in this regard was carefully explained: when journalists asked questions of the university, I should gather the necessary information and furnish them with an answer. With a background in journalism, I knew that time was as important as the information being requested. In my dealings with journalists, I asked only two things: please give me as much time as you reasonably can to answer your questions, and please let me know about your deadline as soon as you contact me.
For the most part, this worked well. I found that if I did my job properly – gathered the information, and passed it on with enough time for journalists to ask follow-up questions if needed – everybody was happy. Well, mostly: I was a little annoyed when a journalist called me at 8pm one night, demanding comment and forcing me to leave a very nice cold beer unfinished so that I could hassle university administrators and get a response to her by 9.30pm.
The point, though, is that my job’s requirements were clearly outlined in one word: spokesperson. It’s hardly a subtle hint as to the nature of your work! I was required, as are all spokespeople, to speak. To communicate information. To tell journalists, who in turn spoke to the institution’s constituency and to other interested members of the public, what it was that Rhodes was getting up to. It wasn’t rocket science. I’m sure I let journalists down on deadline a few times (all complaints to be directed, in writing, to the editor of The Media, who will stand as my proxy and buy you an apology drink).
But, for the most part, I spoke when required. Yes, I dealt with serious bureaucracy: all organisations tend to have faintly ridiculous protocols that involve communicating with 16 different people to obtain and verify a single scrap of information. This is frustrating, and organisations that want to improve their communication strategies really need to look at streamlining this process.
So, to newspapers – where, for further sins, I find myself working these days. The Cape Argus is an afternoon newspaper, and the deadline for our first edition is 9am each day. Today, just a few hours before I sat down to write this column, a spokesperson for a major organisation seemed genuinely surprised that the e-mail she allegedly sent last night had not reached us. Simple solution, I suggested: how about resending the e-mail? This she duly – allegedly – did. It didn’t reach us. Okay, computers are strange. How about faxing it through? No, she said, no fax machine. Well, let me go out on a limb here, I said: how about reading the response to our reporter over the phone? This flummoxed her, and when the reporter asserted herself, the spokesperson panicked: now, she said, she was being ’grilled’ and she was going to e-mail us so as to avoid the roasting. The e-mail arrived about two hours later.
As it stood, and much to my displeasure, we held the story. It was the right thing to do, editorially: we would have run a half-baked piece, and let our readers down by doing so. But holding it meant that, effectively, the company had blocked a story that painted it in a poor light. It’s a trick we’re seeing more and more often in the newsroom: block, deflect, obfuscate and just plain ignore, hoping that the journalist will go away and leave you alone.
It’s hard to remain tough in the face of something so utterly exhausting and alarmingly widespread. Government departments at provincial and national level – so that’s two different political masters, for those of us in the Western Cape – are appalling communicators. They’re very good at crowing about their achievements and inviting us to innumerable photo opportunities; but when the going gets tough, the spin doctors skedaddle. It’s the same for corporates, and even small companies are joining in the fun.
I have no doubt that good stories are getting lost in newsrooms around the country because reporters and news editors are simply giving up. It’s a terrible admission to make, but there’s something relentless and bludgeoning about the way ’spokespeople’ handle their core business – you know, that whole ’speaking’ thing we dealt with earlier? That makes even the most committed journalist freeze up.
So, what’s the solution? Tenacity, I think. We need to keep on keeping on; we need to build our relationships with strong spokespeople, and we need to hold both them and their lousy counterparts to account. After all, when they refuse to speak to us, they’re cocking a snook at our readers, or listeners, or viewers – and it’s those people – who choose our publications, or stations, or websites – whose interests we absolutely have to put first if we’re to do our jobs properly.
Follow Natasha on Twitter @TashJoeZA
This story was first published in The Media magazine.