Wednesday, 7 March 2012

To communicate a message, make part of it topical

Getting your message out can be a challenge if you're a farmer and you want to have more influence in metropolitan centres, where much of the public debate that conditions government policy takes place. Other farmers will be receptive to your message in a way that, perhaps, metropolitan residents will not. Priorities differ. And there's in many ways a different ethos ruling priorities in the cities, compared to that which regulates those pertaining in the country. Rural residents tend to be socially conservative but their isolation makes them more reliant on the government of the day than, for example, your typical metro Liberal voter. So there's not a clean match in terms of priorities between your typical farmer (is there such a thing?) and any one of the various 'types' of metro resident, be they conservative, uncommited, or progressive. And the business of farming differs from your average 9-to-5 job in a lot of ways.

But what takes place in the metro media space often conditions government's response to any number of issues. Take the Indonesian abbattoir scandal as an example. It only took one ABC TV program on one night last year for the government to shut down the export of livestock to that country. Because rural businesses, especially those in northern Australia, rely so heavily on that particular export business, the fallout for the farmer in, say, the Northern Territory, was tremendous. That farmer felt not only isolated geographically, but ignored by the metro media who he or she felt was paying too much attention to animal rights groups and not enough attention to the economic and other impacts hitting the region as a result of the shutdown of trade.

Your average Territory cattle grazier is deeply concerned about how his or her livestock is treated. All farmers with cattle care about their livestock and take pains to make sure that the animals are as happy as possible. But how to get this message across into the metro media, the place that conditions government responses to issues that arise from time to time in the public sphere? This is the challenge. It's not easy, but it's not impossible either. I wrote this post in the hope that it can help farmers to understand the dynamics of the metro media, from the point of view of a freelance journalist. A lot of metro news outfits do not take freelance stories now due to the difficult economic times newspapers are facing. But that doesn't mean that you can't get your message across. For many newspapers, staff journalists are in constant contact with public relations operatives (PRs), who send them story ideas in the same way that a freelancer will pitch a story to editors and journalists working for a news vehicle.

The illustration accompanying this post was chosen because it serves to show, in a graphical way, the way that a freelancer or PR will shape a story to fit with the existing priorities of metro media staffers. At the top is a structure labelled in the diagram 'dopamine terminal', which manufactures dopamine that it sends out into the environment. At the bottom is a structure labelled in the diagram 'post-synaptic cell'. This structure has a number of receptors implanted in it that are designed to accept the units of dopamine that are produced by the dopamine terminal. Note that each dopamine unit has a distinctive shape, including spurs that are designed to allow the dopamine to latch onto the receptor.

Let's say that each receptor is a different current (or 'topical') story, which is familiar to the editor or journalist on the staff of the metro newspaper. Topical meaning current, or relevant. The idea then is to make sure the spur on the dopamine unit can fit into the receptor representing that topical narrative. It must be a snug fit. What happens away from the spur, on the rest of the dopamine unit, is of secondary importance for the editor or journalist. Once that snug fit is made there is space to include other aspects of the story. The story you want to tell might constitute the bulk of your communication but it has to hang off the critical spur that will fit into the editor's receptor.

Another editor might take your story and rewrite the first two or three paragraphs so that the story's spur fits more snugly into their receptor. The interesting thing is that within a story there might be elements that are at variance, or that constrast with one another. Because of this dialectical tendency in the West - the play of opposing views in any one space - you can switch (or 'segue') from one track of a story to another track. In this way, the concepts built into the spur can logically lead (using grammatical elements like 'but' or 'however', just for example) to other concepts that are related and that actually hold the message that you want to communicate to the world. Journalists talk a lot about 'transitions', meaning those parts at the beginning and the end of a paragraph that enable the easy movement from one idea to another. Note the 'easy' part: it's important.

This is a quick guide to tailoring your message for the metro media. If you think your message is not getting out, there may be ways for farmers to rope in the services of an experienced PR, or to catch the attention of a freelance journalist who might possess a measure of credibility with some metro editors. Remember, though, that a PR is not the same thing as a freelancer even though some of the things they do are identical, like pitching ideas to editors. What sets them apart is largely the matter of 'interest': a PR is paid by the interested party to do the communication while a freelancer is paid by the editor at the other end of the chain of information.

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