I often hear complaints from public servants about the media and its click-bait culture, but this is no reason to stay out of public debate – in fact, it’s the very reason the public service should be fully engaged.
The anti-mandate, pro-freedom protest at parliament highlighted two issues that should be of critical concern to all public servants: misinformation and the distrust of government.
It's very tempting to condemn the more extreme elements of the protest and use it as a rationale for not engaging with the issues they were raising, but doing so ignores issues that are not only legitimate but are shared and considered important by many.
Setting aside the more abhorrent behaviour and the dubious factions that were part of the protest, at the heart of what they were saying were the same concerns that have been raised by politicians, business operators, and the sectors struggling as a result of the COVID-19 response. Polling also suggests that these concerns are not isolated to a small fringe, even though some of the protest was.
But what has been a real eye-opener has been the kind of misinformation and misdirection that we’d only previously seen in news feeds from abroad. We can no longer sit back smugly and say that Trump-like behaviour could never happen here – the protest in Wellington shows that New Zealand is just as vulnerable, and we can only be grateful the protest stopped at parliament’s lawn and didn’t spread up the steps like the invasion of the United States Capitol just a year before.
While this comparison might seem a little dramatic, who would have thought the seat of our government would be surrounded by protesters and concrete bollards for more than three weeks? And is it a form of protest we could now see more often?
The question for the public service is how does it address deeper questions and wider societal challenges highlighted not only by the protests but by the transformational change that will be part of our future when we deal with climate change and the rise of the far-right? How does it combat misinformation and how does it reinforce the people’s trust in government?
Perhaps another way to put it is – if it’s not the public sector’s role to ensure people have the right information to make informed decisions, then whose is it?
A constantly evolving information environment
The traditional role of the media has always been to provide a check on the power of government. Today’s media is far more diverse and includes a far wider range of outlets and organisations than when it was given the title of “fourth estate” as a watchdog over the appropriate separation of power within government. What it does retain is enormous reach and influence, partly because technology has made it so much more accessible.
One of the features of digital media is the creation of new sources of reporting and publishing that are part of a constantly evolving information environment. While we have seen a number of credible quality subscription and free services bringing informed coverage from different perspectives, we’ve also seen the emergence of actors with a range of motives and agendas using digital platforms devoted to spreading disinformation.
Traditional media still has a wide reach with the public, even though access may be through a range of digital platforms and many may not read past the headline or the 280 characters of a Tweet. Even so, there is still a lot of authority and influence associated with the masthead or logo of an established news organisation. The stories they carry can deepen knowledge and understanding and influence opinion by telling people what others are thinking and providing information so they can form their own views. Most importantly, editorial content or ‘news’ carries the implied credibility of a third-party filter with objectivity and a commitment to accuracy and balance.
How well and consistently the media fulfils its role is a legitimate question, but the new click-bait headlines and a “gotcha” culture are not excuses for the public service to stay out of the debate. It can also be argued that failure to engage in the debate is an abrogation of the responsibility to serve the public.
The public service shield
Media and communications are critical when public interest is high, and for those with a public and stakeholder focus, there is an obligation to understand the media, its needs, and how to engage with it effectively.
Care when engaging with the media is appropriate, but worrying about risk is the wrong place to start. The media are the gatekeepers to your audience, so understanding them and how they work are key.
From the media’s perspective, the public service is seen as an information filter to shield its political masters. Even simple requests for information are deliberately delayed, and access to the right people is denied, all of which is true to a greater or lesser degree.
The Privacy Act and due process are used too often, and slow responses from departments are interpreted as a lack of transparency, arrogance, or proof that they have something to hide – often reflected in the tone of the increasing trend towards advocacy journalism.
The lack of access has also seen the weaponisation of the Official Information Act and wide ranging “fishing expeditions” that in many instances could be addressed by meaningful engagement.
Brave new world
Perhaps the most significant challenge – and shortcoming – in the public sector’s media engagement is its slow response to the changed media landscape and the demands it creates.
News is no longer just the domain of large organisations, who must now compete in a more crowded media landscape with such outlets as non-profit media organisations, academic centres, and self-publishing groups and networks.
The new environment allows the development of channels and forums where like-minded or single-issue groups can congregate. The risk is that balanced information essential for an informed debate gets lost in echo chambers that reinforce perspective and which can also become the target of misinformation and even misdirection as has been discussed in the context of the Wellington protests.
Digital channels have also gutted traditional media revenue and with it the investment in recruiting, training, and keeping journalists. Not only are there fewer or them, but mainstream media reporters are likely to be young and working under pressure, and in many cases, they will be neither experienced nor well supervised. Subject-matter expertise often sits in smaller niche media outlets, and one size and type of media engagement will not meet all media needs.
This requires public service communication that is more open, transparent, and accessible, using tools such as video and social content that is not the natural medium of these new channels and their audiences.
This digital environment also has an ability to publish “live” or very close to it, and stories will not be held while a considered written response is developed, especially when there are compelling images or a willing spokesperson. Timeliness of media response is not the public sector’s strong suit, and the result can see organisations caught on the back foot on an issue and left struggling to get back in the debate.
Sometimes saying nothing can be a justified response – but not often. It can and does take time to be thorough and ensure accuracy, and many public servants may distrust the media’s motives or skills or may have a different view of what is news or what is important – but they must still be engaged.
The tortoise and the hare
No doubt there are many public servants who want to engage faster and more freely with media but feel constrained by multi-layered sign-off processes designed to avoid risk and political retribution. The challenge for the sector is to have the same confidence in its communication as it has in its ability to make and implement good policy.
The public sector may not be built for speed, but most of the issues it deals with have a longer-term view, and the approach to communication should be the same.
One of the biggest assets of the public service is the range and quality of the information it holds, and more often than not, that’s what the media is after. There are examples where the quality and reliability of information has made officials the trusted source of information, but that was not by accident – it will always be the outcome of a planned, strategic approach that is well-executed.
Communication – and by association the media – are key in any matter of public interest, and the public sector needs to invest in those relationships and maintain them – before they’re needed.
No one said it would be easy, but neither are the big transformative policy issues the public sector is charged with delivering. The associated challenges are not reasons for defensive retreat, they only reinforce the imperative for the public service to communicate professionally and credibly.
If the reluctance is the political overlay that accompanies many issues, remember one of the most effective ways to manage political anxiety is to manage public anxiety.
This article was published in the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand Public Sector Journal, Volume 45, April 2022.