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Friday, August 9, 2013

Thinking About The Bezos Acquisition Of The Washington Post: What Does It Mean For Federal Communicators?

When you consider that 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the United States it becomes clear that we have entered an entirely new world of communication. For government communicators, here are three consequences of this consolidation:
  • There are no isolated stories about the agency but rather there is an overarching narrative and every story feeds into it. So within the agency it is not OK to have one group working on Initiative A and another group on Initiative B and they are connected in the public's mind yet internally the people are not talking to one another. Public Affairs has to be that connecting linchpin working between Groups A and B to insist that the narrative be made whole.
  • Similarly there are no isolated news outlets or platforms on which news is delivered but rather one always connects to the other. So it is impossible to say, we'll do a press release but avoid social media; or we don't want to get involved in mobile now; because the reality is, your content is going everywhere. The people responsible for sending out content to the public must be working across platforms to comprehensively assess and then report back on the impact of particular stories and on the general tone of coverage across traditional and new media.
  • Finally in the Bezos model as in the Huffington post model, the user is king and so there has to be much more respect for and engagement with the unfiltered and uncensored comments from the public. It's no longer enough to say "whoa, that's astroturfing and I'm not going to respond" - you have to get in there, roll your sleeves up and talk to people. (Of course you have to identify yourself as an Agency representative.)
This relates to my post yesterday on branding the platform, which talks about Amazon at some length.

On a related note I think it is important to point out as I try to do periodically that no matter what communication outlet we use, it is illegal to use appropriated funds for propaganda. 

The law does not specifically say what that word means but over the years, it has been interpreted pretty clearly and the Legal Information Institute at Cornell offers a brief guide. Essentially Agencies:
  • Can: "inform the public about its activities and programs, explain its policies and priorities, and defend its policies, priorities, and point of view"
  • Can't: 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" (also known as "puffery" or promotional talk that "no 'reasonable person' would take literally" and that can't be verified for accuracy - e.g. a sales pitch 2) promote a political party or candidate - e.g. communicate for “purely partisan purposes,” and 3) issue “covert propaganda” - meaning Agency materials issued to a non-government outlet without disclosing who made them.
On the concept of journalistic objectivity, or any objectivity, I am of the school of thought that says it is impossible, although striving for accuracy is not. As Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who broke Edward Snowden's story) states:"The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective."

To counter the problem of objectivity, it is helpful to offer raw data along with context and then invite third parties to analyze it, break it down and communicate about it their own way. Check out this template for a Social Media Press Release.

(Note - all opinions my own as always.)