There’s a lot to like about Dick Brown. Especially if you’re a professional communicator. Brown is the Executive Director of Communications and Public Outreach for the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Public Protection Cabinet, the Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Labor Cabinet. He has been in the communications business for 40 years as a PR guy, journalist and more. Affable, intelligent, friendly.
Brown was the guest speaker Thursday at the monthly meeting of the Louisville chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. His talk was called, “New Media & Politics: How Bloggers Are Killing The Message.” I went thinking there was potential for him to generalize and stereotype and call all bloggers wing nuts and Mama’s basement nerds and, as such, would defend blogging as a profession or even passion. Fortunately, he started off by clarifying he doesn’t think we’re all nuts, but a good number of us are. (I hesitate to disagree with that.)
So I listened. His presentation was essentially a primer on how to think of and deal with bloggers from someone who holds them at arm’s length, doesn’t trust many of them, thinks they are detrimental to journalism and the communications process as we know it, but will concede there are a few who do a good job. Brown’s problem is that he thinks bloggers are journalists, or at least should be.
There are some finer points of his I don’t agree with like his opinion that bloggers should report the story fairly and leave the opinion to the commentors. A statement like this just shows that Brown discounts the fact that bloggers, and journalists, are human beings with opinions. The Internet gives us a place to post them. Our country gives us the right to do so. If Brown’s version of what a blog is were true – blogger reports balanced and fair and only commentors offer reaction and opinion, as my buddy @cheapsuits said on Twitter, “Then blogs would be boring.”
He reported the Kentucky Governor’s office doesn’t respond to comments on blogs, unless they’re made by the blogger him or herself and that they took blogs off their main media list because they didn’t respect old school media embargoes.
He also lamented the fact the news media now blogs and pointed to several journalists, paid to be fair and balanced, who blog and express their opinions. To someone from the old school line of thinking where Walter Conkrite covered the news and Andy Rooney commented on it and never the twain shall meet, that’s a fair assessment. However, all of Brown’s points lead to one over-arching theme that separates old communications thinking from new, past ways of conducting business to modern and divides those who don’t “get it” from those who do.
To Mr. Brown, whom I do respect and in many ways admire, I would offer this: The public you serve has run to the Internet to get away from uncontrolled media environments, interruption marketing, corporate and political spin and, yes, your “message.” Blogs exists and thrive because real, live human beings, the ones who voted your boss into office and whose taxes pay your salary, don’t want to hear talking points and strategic communications. They want Steve Beshear, the governor of Kentucky who happens to be a real, live human being, to tell them what he’s going to do about jobs, gas prices, new roads and education funding. They don’t want party platform talking points. They want someone to reach out, put a hand on their shoulder and say, “We’re working our ass off. Here’s how. And it’s going to be okay.” But then they want him to mean it and prove that it’s true.
Like many communications professionals have over the last three decades, you’ve become convinced we’re in the business of communicating with the media. Not so. We’re in the business of communicating with the public. Blogging and social media have made the media less imperative because we can now go straight to the human beings that matter most. Not that the media isn’t important, but please don’t think the end user isn’t either.
As my friend Michelle Jones wrote, albeit in presumptive anticipation of Brown’s speech:
“I’m assuming that by ‘message’ the presenter means a carefully crafted campaign of very limited information that flows only one way. Simply put the marketer tells the audience what he wants us to know and we’re supposed to be happy to get it. Our only response to the message should be to either buy the product or vote for the politician the message is telling us to. Bloggers don’t play that game. Bloggers dig (and digg) deeper than the press releases or news articles they’ve been handed. Bloggers say when they disagree with political or business decisions. Bloggers say what they think but more importantly blog readers get to say what they think as well. A blogger posts, commenters respond and many people are participating in a two-way conversation.”
In short, don’t think of communicating with the public as a message. Think of it as a conversation. I talk to my bosses every day. Would it hurt politicians to really talk to theirs, too?
Granted, Brown does work in the niche of politics, which brings with it some unrestrained passion from any number of different angles. Yes, there are political bloggers who are nuts. But there are many who are cutting through the politi-speak and spin and reporting observations on our government through the eyes of real, live human beings, not face-caked, frozen hair, poster boys combing for sound bytes and better gigs. There are 63 blogs that cover Kentucky politics according to a keyword search on Technorati yesterday. They aren’t all crazy. They aren’t all rumor-mongers and liars trying to bait the other side. They aren’t all fair, but they aren’t all unfair.
What they are, Mr. Brown, are citizens of your Commonwealth. They are payers of your salary. They are voters. They are human beings. And they are tired of being fed a line by a media member playing nice with the people who fed him the line who are trying to jockey for public opinion while seldom considering the public’s real opinion.
Brown’s presentation was actually quite good with some strong points. He did report that blogging is a fact of life in the media environment today and communications professionals need to consider blogs as potential avenues to reach their audiences. But having someone who treats blogs with such uncertainty (he admitted the Beshear administration has never proactively reached out to bloggers, but has accommodated those who have built a relationship with him) advise a group of professional communicators on how to reach out to bloggers is like asking the elder George Bush how to better market the broccoli industry.
Brown gave a good talk with some very pertinent and valid information. But he also showed how far the gap is from the public and those that run our governments. We’re human. We connect. We converse. They stay “on message” and get across the “party platform” and hit their prescribed “talking points.” And as a result, the public doesn’t trust them.
Could you imagine what the American political system would be like if it were truly run by the people and for the people? If social media principles — give to get, share and share a like, be genuine, transparent and — God forbid — honest drove the ship? If there are any government officials reading this who want to talk more deeply, please call me.
In the end, I simply handed Brown a business card and said, “I don’t know if you have anyone in the administration who is knee deep in the blogosphere, but I am and you need help, that’s what I’m here for. Call me.”
My guess is he won’t because in the litter that is behemoth corporate monoliths broadcasting one-way messages to “consumers” and aren’t the least bit interested in the fact those “consumers” are real people in need of a little human interaction, government is top dog.