The Rachel Smalley-Pharmac saga has exposed the strange relationship that many large organisations, both public and private, have with journalists. It doesn’t have to be this way, argues Leni Ma’ia’i.
When journalist Rachel Smalley sent out an Official Information Act request to Pharmac for any mentions of her own name, I doubt she was expecting gold stars and glowing endorsements.
Over the last year, Smalley has demanded better answers from the government agency on some questionable decision-making around which drugs it did and didn’t fund, including some life-saving cancer medications. This reporting included long interviews with patients, impacted families, as well as plenty of critical columns and interviews with Pharmac representatives themselves.
Ordinarily, any ill will these bureaucrats might harbour for Smalley for doing her job would have lived safely behind closed doors, but the OIA cleared up any mystery.
Over the course of the 273-page reveal, their true colours were displayed to the public eye in a way only the OIA can do. One devilish employee even celebrated “making Rachel cry”, while another drafted a short limerick on her difficult relationship with Pharmac.
Readers will rightly baulk at the hostility shown by these hyped up public sector workers, but unfortunately their anti-media stance is nothing new or original.
Incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon has wasted no time icing media out from National’s negotiations with its potential coalition partners. Meanwhile, Winston Peters, the man who may share the halls of power with him, has recently made calls for a royal commission of inquiry on independence in the media.
But again, this is nothing new. The flagrant dislike for the fourth estate isn’t just seen within the public sector, I’d argue it’s become endemic to many of New Zealand’s large public-facing institutions.
Take the All Blacks, for example.
After their quarterfinal blinder over Ireland, coach Ian Foster was more than happy to wax lyrical to the media scrum about his side’s masterful performance. On the other hand, after a series loss to that same team last year, Foster was notably missing from the post-game press briefing (I believe he was later sighted at the back of the bus with his hood up, listening to Slim Shady).
New Zealand’s pride-and-joy sports team has a general reputation among media as overly PR trained, with a team of “media preventioners” who drip-feed time with players as they see fit.
The sum of all these parts is a fourth estate being degraded by institutional self-interest.
Even if the All Blacks don’t have anything to do with the cost of living crisis, or who is going to be leading the country, Joe Public still deserves a clear answer from our national team after a tough loss.
Or we want our banks to be able to tell us why we’re paying so much in fees, or why our supermarkets are ripping us off, without getting lost in the sauce of PR speak.
From Fonterra to the All Blacks, many New Zealand institutions have reached a point where news gatherers are either seen as a tool to advance their ambitions, or people to avoid when the going gets tough.
There’ll never be any shortage of spokespeople to talk about the wonderful initiatives happening at a business, or a handsome end of financial year result. But when the shit hits that fan, those same spokespeople shrink into the back of the bus, or become available to comment only by email.
What they’re missing, though, is that all this stuff is a two-way street.
When a crisis breaks, the news cycle may eventually move on, but we remember the people who refuse to front up. Similarly, we remember those who embrace accountability for mistakes.
It’s my job to advise companies on their communications, but I would argue that many of our largest organisations are over-advised. In fact, the communications departments at our biggest listed companies are probably double the size of The Spinoff newsroom.
In the same way that a high-powered legal team can impose their will on an under-resourced group of activists, many internal communication teams have grown so large that they can comfortably out-muscle reporters by reducing access, or just failing to answer questions.
Sometimes that’s from having too many voices in the room. A nervous comms person in a room of nervous comms people might try to justify their job by saying “no” to a nosy reporter.
Other times its simple risk aversion, where the risk of fronting up and making a mistake isn’t worth all the hassle. Far easier to keep the reporters at bay with holding statements and media releases.
But fundamentally, the better our institutions get at avoiding public scrutiny, or stiff-arming journalists who ask difficult questions, the worse off we all are.
When a comms department stonewalls a business by refusing to front up a quote, it’s not the journalist who loses out, it’s the public that fails to get an understanding of what is going on.
In a world of global politicians turning the media into a straw-man villain, it’s easy to forget that a journalist’s job is pretty simple. Investigate an issue, ask intelligent questions, and put the answers in context. This has been the well-oiled machine of media that has kept communities and countries informed for years.
But a business communications team also has a relatively simple job – to tell the story of their business in a way that the general public can understand. And while part of this storytelling comes in the form of brand identity powerpoints and logo design, it also comes from answering clear questions raised by a journalist.
As comms departments make their inevitable trudge towards behemoth status, they should do well to remember this: journalists are not your friend, but neither are they your enemy. A question from a journalist is a question from the public, and should be answered as such.
The negative risk of treating journos as evil-doers is not just to a brand’s reputation, or public transparency, it’s also that your terrible limericks may see the light of day from a savvy reporter’s OIA.