Going where the people are is a pretty safe bet. Public officials in state and local government are doing just that, giving priority to TV news outlets when they respond to requests for information and interviews. But today’s conventional wisdom about media relations is markedly different than it was just a few years ago, and may be shifting again as news consumers continue their migration from print and broadcast news to digital media.
In a recent survey conducted by Governing Exchange (the research arm of Governing), we asked public leaders from across government to rank the order in which they would respond to requests from local media. Almost half of respondents said TV outlets came first (46 percent) compared to just more than a third who chose newspapers as the first call they would return (37 percent). Public officials were far less inclined to give first priority to online-only news outlets (10 percent) and radio (7 percent).
The fact that public officials make TV outlets their first choice isn’t too surprising. When it comes to news consumption, TV is also the top choice for most Americans, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center. However, when taken together, the two surveys show mismatches between public officials and news consumers when it comes to radio and online news outlets: Both are significant news sources for a third of consumers, but each is a priority for fewer than 17 percent of newsmakers.
Pew documents a precipitous decline in newspaper readership, which is down by almost half in the last decade. At the same time, however, a newspaper’s reputation for shaping public discourse in a community holds strong among newsmakers and hired as communications director for former Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire explicitly for his new media expertise. Yet when asked which news outlets he would contact first, Curtis responded instinctively with an old-school answer, “Newspapers. They set the agenda.”
“That may not be as true as it once was,” says Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri, noting that some communities have been left with only weekly papers, if they have any at all. “Just as online news services have tried to fill the void in larger cities,” says McKinney, “radio is still very important in rural communities. Both need to be part of the mix.”
The apparent disconnect between newsmakers and consumers over the Internet may not be as wide as it first appears. The Exchange survey asked about returning a call to online-only news outlets while the Pew study’s definition of Internet included those plus the websites of conventional media outlets as well as social media.
Television’s lock on news followers may be fleeting. Social media is the only source of news that is growing in popularity among news consumers, according to the Pew study and, not surprisingly, is the dominant news source among American adults under age 30.
In a volatile media environment, there is folly in settling on any conventional wisdom—be it TV first or newspaper first or some other formula. The answer changes over time, by geography and by circumstance.
Absent an easy, stable answer about whom to call, Dan Schill, a James Madison University communications professor and author of a new book on campaigning and social media, says there is a single cardinal rule that can serve public officials well even as the media landscape changes: “Pay attention.”
Schill says effective public officials are aware, day in and day out, of the news cycle and anticipate when they may be drawn into a story. He says being effective depends on thinking like a reporter. “Know the journalist, their organization, their audience and their deadlines,” he says, “and know the issue better than they do.”
(Infographic Source: Governing Exchange, November 2013; Pew Research Center, 2012 News Consumption Survey)