What’s it like being on the other (dark) side?
That’s what some curious people, especially ex-journalists, have asked me about my short sojourn in the campaign team of failed presidential candidate George Goh in July and August. Straight off the bat, I answer that I am more of a journalist than a publicist.
I got uncomfortable preparing George to answer questions, and even more upset when the journalists didn’t ask them. (What’s wrong with them? Such an obvious followup question!!!)
I got uncomfortable when journalists, bloggers and other content producers thought they were re-assuring me when they said they would let us check the draft copy or view the tape before publication or broadcast. (Err. This would have been a disciplinary offence in my time)
I told one journalist to stop telling me how his interview would be displayed and the sort of space that will be devoted to it. For goodness sakes! The interview hadn’t even happened! The PR head in our team, sensing my discomfort, said :”Talk to me! Talk to me!’’ (Yes, yes, talk to her).
Journalism or rather, public communication, has changed much if you take into account the myriad channels that people now have to get their message across. There are online sites, podcast/video interviews and no end of other gimmicks to present yourself to the people – sometimes in the weirdest, nerdiest ways. A premium is placed on being “authentic’’ even as the so-called authenticity is sometimes forced on a personality.
Social media was very big in this presidential election; we made great use of it ourselves. People don’t care if online media which touts itself as giving out news is really about news. Or just news that gets more eyeballs. Or (paid/unpaid) publicity parading as news.
When people tell me that they get their news on social media from feeds and shares etc, I wonder if they are getting the whole picture, or simply getting what they like and want to hear. I was flabbergasted to see some personalities conducting interviews who revel in their own ignorance, with the excuse that they are representative of the audience and would allow the interviewee to show off knowledge. (They won’t get any smarter reading such stuff.)
It works the other way too. If you have enough money, you can do all your promotion on social media without the need for even a friendly filter to sieve out the fluff and the puff from the real stuff.
“You’re outdated, gal,’’ said one 20something social influencer when I told her I am more of a Facebook person than a TikTok person. And I was aghast when she said that old people on TikTok are actually “quite cute’’.
So, during my sojourn, I stuck mainly to the “news’’ or journalism type of work – writing speeches, press releases and working on answers to possible questions. Of course, even in sincerity, there must be some “spin’’. They are part and parcel of the job and, for me, it was interesting to watch if professional journalists would fall for them.
Increasingly, journalists are operating like repeaters, not reporters. They prefer prepared statements – with an embargo so that they can spend time writing it. They don’t think about meeting newsmakers for background information. (Of all the journalists I encountered, only two asked to have coffee with me. One of them worked for foreign media.)
Remembering the days of stake-out for just that one comment or quick picture, I told George to stay home when the first press release on his proposed candidacy went out, in case journalists were waiting outside the gate to waylay him for comments. I shouldn’t have bothered. Journalists only came for scheduled interviews or at “door stops’’ we arranged for them….
I decided to start George on a regime I hated in my past life: manipulate the so-called doorstop so that only what the newsmaker wants to say gets reported. A doorstop is usually for reporters to ask questions, not for the newsmaker to make speeches. Yet, newsmakers do so all the time and all media gathered would faithfully report the words, however bland, afraid that they would be pipped by the other. And there would be a picture or video clip because no photo or video journalist would go on a job …and get nothing.
The others in my team said they would have hated me if I was on the side doing the reporting. I agreed heartily. I have been known to be a “dangerous” reporter who won’t abide by media management conventions like “no more questions” and “please email”. I’ve never emailed questions to newsmakers, because I know the answers will be so well- prepared that there would only be a small, very small, kernel of truth. I gave broad topics.
When some news media said they would NOT be sending questions before a scheduled interview, I was actually quite glad that this practice was being preserved. The rest of the team, however, thought that this was sneaky and under-handed. (I am sure they would balk at my describing George as a “failed’ candidate; I call a spade a spade)
Over the years, I have increasingly come to believe that public relations have overtaken journalism as a more interesting profession. Imagine yourself strategising a message and having everyone fall in line. Imagine having your own words published, unfiltered and unvarnished, cut and pasted. Imagine that only what you want said, gets said.
You would have to be (almost) as good as journalists.
This is not a good thing for those on the receiving end. Without a filter, readers would only be reading what key players with deep pockets (and those with pockets that need filling) want them to read.
There is a $ sign behind most messages. You can’t blame the people behind them because they are trying to survive. Most try to do a hybrid of sponsored and real reporting. Some try to draw a line and make it clear to the readers. Others charge a fee as “service” and dangle extra exposure for extra cash. Some see nothing wrong with disguising advertising as editorial. Others cite pragmatism as a reason for what they do.
Few or no questions are being asked on the readers’ behalf because of the race to survive (not even to scoop another media). Soon, this will be normal practice, rather than shoddy practice. And readers will also start shrugging at complaints about reliability, credibility and honour. We read – and will get dumber and dumber. . Or we will get tickled by the sight of old people on TikTok.
Back to the initial question. Did I enjoy myself?
I did. Tremendously.
It was good to have an insight into what goes into a political campaign rather than merely reporting it. It’s participation, not spectating. I can safely say that I am now at least familiar with the whole machinery of readying for an election.
For me, the most exhilarating time was pressing the send button for the first press release from the George Goh team. I think back to how it used to be the other way: how, as a journalist, receiving that first press release would get the adrenalin pumping. It marked the start of work in earnest.
I am still having withdrawal symptoms from its premature end.
I guess I will have to make do with writing.