Sea-lioning as a tactic by the council administration for dealing with criticism. To be followed up in part II.
I have written before about how official communications now make up a big part of the narrative found in newspapers and any media. Reasons for it can include fewer staff in papers, fewer staff in other other countries, cutting costs, a need for a simplicity in news since reporters often cover topics they know little about etc (Laura Basu — Media Amnesia; Hallins).
So what are the interactions with official businesses and authorities when you are a citizen journalist and aren’t part of the press conferences or on any mailing list with press statements? The comms team do not reply to requests made to the newsdesk so how do they interact?
To see this it is important to examine how information is found in the first place. Councils produce a fair amount of information as standard. [check legislation about the democratic requirements for councils and the council’s own constitution]
Each meeting has rules about which items go on the agenda, who allows them, how democratic services at the council are involved, how the public can interact and what information they can ask for.
There is also the freedom of information act and then recourse to the ICO with any complaints. The issue with these avenues is one of time. It takes time to make FOI requests and a very long time to hear back. The responses are meant to be made within 20 working days but I have FOI requests that have been outstanding for 6 months to over a year. The ICO then takes its time as well. One complaint lodged in April 2020 is still outstanding with them now in November.
The benefit of having access to the newsdesk is that when the council want to, they provide a quick response. Various FOIs of the internal workings of the council press team show that they can provide replies quickly.
One downside to relying on the administration’s (as it seems to be rather than the ‘council’s’ comms team) is that the veracity of those responses might not be complete.
In one example when the Bristol Post editor asked the press team/comms team about an issue concerning street lights being moved to rich areas from poor areas, the response came almost immediately from the mayor’s assistant and the reply was ‘fake news’. [foi link]
And this is all part of the reporter/comms team relationship. Other ways of noticing the social capital and connections between them is seeing the small niceties in the emails — tiny bits of information from ones social and daily life in between the ‘routine’ work questions.
Political editor: “Sorry, I’ve been suffering from a horrendous migraine over the past two days.”
Comms: “No worries. Are you feeling any better?”
These parts of the conversation are not only naturally arising because the people in conversation have probably been in touch a lot. These are social relationship skills that we naturally pick up. [see citations in transaction analysis]
But the pleasantries also help separate the requests.
- The niceties are who I am, we are fine, friendly, have a good relationship.
- When I ask work questions that may seem critical of the administration, It’s not personal, I’m just doing my job.
And it maintains a relationship where newspapers can get the information they need quickly and can go to press. There have been complaints from journalists about the council not replying and therefore the story not being able to be published. [two sources]
One way of dealing with this is to go to print and state the council have been contacted for comment. For some stories, however, this might not be possible.
The Bristol Post FOI had many interesting things in it but one that stood out was the quote provided by the council comms person very quickly, even when not required. It was a general quote so it may have been seen as trivial. But that compares to no responses at all from the comms team to citizen journalists like myself.
See below for the interaction.