Your voice, it had the perfect flow…it got lost when you gave it up though…

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As I mentioned in the last blog post, one of my favourite cynical in jokes in PR is the “never find God quietly” reference. In PR, in 2017, everything has to be moving, it isn’t just God that has to be found loudly, but everything, every action has to mean something. At no point can you rest, everything is accelerated, every moment counts. If there’s a period of prolonged silence, your clients career may never recover as they sink into irrelevancy – there must always be content created, there must be tweets, there must be press releases. Where as once, PR was about creating the big event, now it’s about creating a thousand small ones, and hoping at least some of them stick. Why spend all that time and effort creating a big event when a small stunt or comment can create the same ripples – and what if that ripple is (within reason) negative? Oh well…it made page 6. More than ever, mini PR disasters are seen as acceptable by certain companies. Don’t go TOO far with it, but remember to laugh at yourself, or blame keyboard warriors and you’ll be absolutely fine. After all, content is content…

The AFL was ahead of the content curve several years ago when it decided that football must not under any circumstances have an off period. The word went around several years ago that there must be no free time or space given to other sports. It must be AFL all the time, whether it’s fake speculative trades (1000 retweets and I’ll tell you one), coaches on the move, mock drafts, breathless AFL X stories or high-definition shots of a player drinking water after a November sprint, something HAS to be happening. The AFL chose to add gossip and speculation to it’s mix, change the rhythms of the week which once had pauses and down time, and ensure at all times, someone somewhere was talking AFL, even with crazy theories. That has given us the mess the media is in right now: the AFL decided they had to be in the news at all times. They had to stay relevant, and it’s the battle to stay relevant that consumes all purveyors of PR to this day, clients and participants…

The upshot of all this is that there is a terror not in producing bad content, but in producing no content. It’s best to have Brian Taylor puffing around a change room to negative tweets compared to no reaction at all. It’s why very few things have journalistic merit anymore, why rather than insightful takes on football, Luke Darcy and Damien Barrett get to comment on and criticise the merits of Jack Riewoldt carrying Nick Riewoldt off the ground as if it’s the most important thing in the world, rather than mentioning something interesting. It keeps them relevant, and it’s what they think people want to hear – the upshot of all this chatter is even if there’s nothing to comment on, you have to keep talking.  Journalistic grunt work is menial – the chance to REALLY progress now lies in moving on from that dogs work to getting to the big time. A panel show, a podcast, a chance to condemn and criticise and josh with the Johnnos and Brownys of this world. The truly relevant in the media don’t worry about reporting, everything is about setting agendas.

Among the myriad of tributes to the late Drew Morphett, one thing that was striking was the revelation that in commentary, Morphett was brave enough to leave pauses in his TV commentary to let the vision speak for itself. No one can do that anymore, lest one attention seeking viewer drift off. Every moment must be filled in, every possible angle examined. If the participant (say Jack Riewoldt) responds, you can extend that relevance into a response, and that extends you to a second story, a second sound grab, a second chance to be relevant. It’s not revelatory to discover early in working in sports and media monitoring the participants and guardians of the media yearn to shift into opinion, to be as important and valued and noticable as players.

The strangest thing about all this is it makes the participants look foolish – take Mark Stevens (or “Stevo” as Channel 7 desperately yearn for us to call him). Stevens jumped on a plane to widespread mockery to door stop Dustin Martin at Auckland Airport about…something. Martins potential move to North Melbourne is newsworthy, but he’s not the most gregarious of personalities and wasn’t likely to provide sparkling insight into his thoughts that justified Stevens being at the airport. It didn’t create a grab of any newsworthy note, and it made Stevens look foolish and, to use the old journalistic parlance, made him look like a bit of an “ambulance chaser”.

So why do it? Because it made Stevens look relevant. It got him in shot. It got him in the frame. He got to say he was there. It kept his profile up – make no mistake, the “grab” was about Stevens. For Channel 7, as we’ve discussed, there is no such thing as negative publicity – even if Stevens is mocked, you still noticed him there, on the spot, regardless of what you thought of it. This is where relevancy matters – it’s more important to have your man noticed than for him to do anything. This is where media is right now – a hive of activity, sound and fury, that actually achieves absolutely nothing…

On a similar vein, on THAT Footy Show, Sam Newman – remember, that world class live TV performer, let him off the leash and ratings will soar, why won’t that silly blonde woman get off and let Sam be Sam etc etc – opined that Robert Murphy of the Western Bulldogs was somehow selfish and self opinionated for taking too much of the spotlight from the Western Bulldogs Premiership when he didn’t play. Murphy of course was part of one of the most emotional Grand Final moments of the last 20 years but apparently this was too much for the delicate sensibilities of a man who has exposed his genitals on TV twice. Off the leash, Newman ran into a lack of approbation from his people, a chorus of boos, and criticism from former players.

Again, this almost doesn’t seem to matter in 2017 – as long as you are talked about, all is good. The content of your words doesn’t matter. It’s a difficult thing to wrestle with in PR – the complete lack of concern for criticism, the fact that you can dismiss everything said about you as “keyboard warriors”, the PC state…that it emboldens a Newman to essentially push his luck until implosion with people egging him on to “be off the leash”. How do you in PR deal with clients flying too close to the sun when they are emboldened to be as loud and bold as possible, where to some controversy generates cash? Newman after all receives more attention (and thus relevancy) simply through foolishness and opinions that no one agrees with than any insight or well crafted bon mot. Stevens gets more notice and attention for looking foolish in an empty airport than any interesting article. On a Friday night, Channel 7 focus on him in close up during his press conferences even as he asks questions of the most obvious variety.

Of course, all of these things about relevancy are the flippant, narrow criticisms of Heritier Lumumba who’s documentary “Fair Game” will be dismissed without being viewed as some sort of grab for relevancy, a bid to get attention. The same people who bid and grasp for relevancy on a daily basis are likely to get no further than the sound bites and clip notes from the documentary. After all, what better way to stay relevant than question someone elses relevancy. Unsurprisingly, the documentary, when viewed, is fair more interesting, insightful and nuanced than the “he’s a flog!” narration that will go around it, the people who thought he threw Eddie McGuire under the bus back in the day. The quite brilliant article by Chelsea Bond covers the content of the documentary much better than I ever could but the most striking moment for me is that Mark Robinson opines that Lumumba should essentially stop lecturing people, stop going on about his experiences. The strange thing about those who speak loudly to be relevant is they also get to claim they can decide who is relevant, the strangest of complete circles

The greatest take out of all this is that football is a product, and the product needs activity, motion and movement. The strange thing is, that movement and activity is often the least interesting, most stale part of the game. Caring about who carries who off the ground, what time someone arrives at an airport, or whether someones selfish is part of a narrative, and it amounts to nothing. It also narrows everything down – it’s why something like Heritier Lumumbas documentary will slip through the cracks sadly, and not receive the review or interest it should – it’s likely to be simplified, turned into two or three soundbites and then chewed up by the media. In a time where long form journalism is becoming a dying art, those who create the soundbite are winning….

I’m open to fall from grace…

This isn’t a critique on whether Collingwood should have reappointed Nathan Buckley, the sound, fury and white noise around that can be expressed on the panel show or message board of your choice. However, as a devotee of PR and spin, I had to make a quick note on the masterclass in spin that was the Collingwood press conference to announce the reappointment of Nathan Buckley as senior coach. As an entity, Collingwood are very interesting to study from a PR perspective. They have a particular style of delivery,  a clear control of media strategy and what they want to impart. They use phrasing, hashtags and slogans as well as anyone. Of all of Melbournes football clubs, few work the media as well as Collingwood, few are as versed in it’s patterns and participants than Collingwood. They know what they want to say, and if things aren’t going their way, how to change it. They know just when to get that charity story or social pages story in the paper at the right time. They are much PR organisation as football club, and for anyone interested in PR, they are the sporting club to study…

The commercialisation of an otherwise innocuous lyric in the clubs theme song (Side by Side) into an overarching message has been a clever way to suppress dissent. Using the side by side phraseology is able to separate the non believers from the true believers, and they’ve taken loyalty and made it a marketing tool. Where they went wrong was losing control of the message with predictions of finals applied to a team that simply wasn’t good enough, and fan dis-satisfaction can only be suppressed with hashtags for so long. But Collingwoods PR department and Eddie McGuires media connections mean they can control the message as well as anyone ever can in this day in age. In the midst of fan dis-satisfaction, they can simply quote side by side as the message. They have reclaimed the negative imagery that everyone hates them and used it as a positive. You are with for us or against us. Now all they need is some wins…

The press conference to reappoint Nathan Buckley was a fascinating watch for PR devotees (setting aside the strange claim Buckley “wasn’t perfect”) as it seemed planned out to a tee. McGuire has a particular media technique that involves speaking seemingly extemporaneously on every single subject except the question that was asked. McGuire can thus never truly be pinned down or give an answer to a question that matters, and given he’s in some way connected to everyone in the room, this is taken as normal. McGuires appearance on On The Couch continued the theme. Geoff Walsh meanwhile, the commissioner of the review, chose to speak in “it’s the vibe, it’s the recruiting, it’s Mabo” lists and riddles and Buckley himself has become some sort of spiritual realist, beloved by the media simply because of his forebearance to most of their questioning (aside from Mark Robinson, if anyone looks at you how Buckley looks at Robinson, head for the exit if you don’t like confrontation).

Together, they produced a PR masterclass, speaking for a long time, without saying anything. No sporting club in Australia can do that quite like Collingwood, no other club manages to evade tough questioning, slip through debate, and control what they want to say quite like them. They work on the old school theory that the central tenet of public relations is relationships, and draw on McGuires overarching dominance of the Melbourne media scene to control their own story. When the Melbourne media are participants in the making of meaning, it’s no wonder Collingwood came out of their press conference “grilling” broadly smiling, having done it again…

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