All I Need to Know (to Adapt to the Changing Media Landscape) I Learned from My Mom!

In my work as a progressive communicator I, like so many of us, am striving to navigate the volatile and rapidly changing media landscape with an open, creative mind and a smile on my face. And as I explore how to turn what at times does indeed feel like a national 'crisis' into an 'opportunity', I can't help but think of my mom.

Like many moms, mine was extraordinarily resourceful and multi-tasked with precision. She playfully experimented on me with the hip, edgy child pop-psychology of the times, while also dishing out the staples of parenting that had worked with my three older siblings. And though she didn't have a 'No Whiners' bumper sticker on her car, it was part of our unspoken credo: one would always make lemonade out of lemons.

It's with my mother's spirit that I want to approach the changing media landscape. But to do so it's critical to contemplate what's happening with both the (former) staples of grassroots PR and the hip, edgy new media tools of the times -- which I try to do without whining.

Let's face it: traditional news outlets are in decline -- flat-lining some would say. Daily newspapers and regional radio newsrooms that aren't closing their doors all together are drastically reducing staff and covering less local news. The virtual extinction of the beat reporters who tenaciously covered environment, labor, community health, immigration, and reduced funding for investigative journalism means the quality and depth of pieces on progressive social justice issues via traditional television, radio and print news mediums is waning. Local television coverage is reduced to shorter sound bytes in fewer and fewer pieces about local issues, as they seek to add international news to their half hour broadcasts in some absurd effort to compete with the cable news giants, who in turn, with few exceptions, sound more and more like squabbling pre-schoolers in need of a nap.

To understand just how devastating this is for grassroots progressive causes it is vital to understand the many ways that local story placement helped us in our strategic media efforts:

  • Often to prove to editors at a national 'opinion leader' media outlet like the New York Times, or even the 'McPaper' (as I lovingly refer to USA Today) that our story was exemplary of a trend and thus worthy of a story, we'd supply the clips of local press coverage we'd earned to date on the issue in various towns and cities. Our proof is evaporating.

  • The local news story was both a place for our spokesperson to warm up and become more accomplished and savvy in doing interviews, but perhaps even more important the placement of a person in a local news story (especially a spokesperson from communities most disproportionately impacted by an issue but often least cited or respected as an expert source) served to legitimize their voice in the eyes of national media outlets. It also raised their clout in the eyes of their adversaries: government officials, policy makers, academics and corporate wrongdoers had a harder time dismissing someone as an expert if they were quoted in the local media during the course of the campaign. Now those media outlets are vanishing daily!
  • Our job has always been to provide context in our pitches, by localizing a national story and putting our community's face on it, or nationalizing a local story, bringing to light the significance (on a national or even international level) of something happening in our communities. The death of the local daily paper means all this changes.
  • Listening to public television news veteran Jim Lehrer in his recent speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco reminded me of the challenges faced by those on the other side of the mic as well, and I knew my mom would remind me that we are all in this together, the journalist and the progressive communicator with the story to tell. Somehow the fate of important news will require in some way that me and Jim, stand together, mixing up the ole lemonade, 25 cents a cup.

    Adventure or disaster?

    New media, web 2.0, social media, social networking, tweets and blogs, on the other hand provide an array of new and different, hip, edgy possibilities. Again, I think about my mom, and how she'd inspire an enthusiastic, adventurous approach to what is new.

    In fact, I've been likening my exploration of emerging new media and web 2.0 tools to our many road trips in Mom's old Rambler station wagon, exploring new terrain across southern California at the height of Los Angeles' urban sprawl in the 1970's. It was a time when new roads, neighborhoods, mini-malls and dead end streets could replace old familiar landmarks like hills, groves of fruit trees and wetlands -- seemingly overnight.

    Once when I dared to accuse Mom of being lost she stated firmly that we were not lost, but rather we were having an adventure! But as I pointed out to her in a particularly astute and sassy observation for a 6 year old, sometimes one person's adventure is another person's disaster!

    So as I listened intently last week to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet's hearing to 'examine the future of journalism' I noticed how indeed one witness' adventure was another's disaster. I appreciated Arianna Huffington's reframing: "The discussion needs to move from "How do we save newspapers?" to "How do we strengthen journalism -- via whatever platform it is delivered?"

    And thus for us progressive communicators, our question is "how do we strengthen the voices of those seeking justice, via whatever platform their truth is delivered?" And I'd guess for now it's a game of 'both/and'.

    • Preparation and a vibrant, transformative approach to how we train and practice can help. Training our spokespeople is never just a matter of technique and good sound bytes, the reality is that there are barriers to overcome so that folks feel strong and empowered to serve as 'breakthrough' messengers, getting beyond the base or people like them and out to other key groups, communities and decision-makers who need to hear -- from them -- the fierce messages for social justice. That internal exploration is about personal growth and healing old stories, it takes a willingness not just to be the front person for a cause, but also to be willing to confront and overcome internal challenges that can be decades old. The difference between a good spokesperson and a great spokesperson is that they genuinely trust that what I say matters, that I'm worthy to be considered as an expert. The internal barriers addressed, the next step then is to convince the journalist that this is so!
  • How we pitch the story can strengthen these voices, and help overcome some of the external barriers and 'isms' that still permeate the minds of some journalists and some audiences. I think of this as a friendly "Reporter Re-education Campaign" as we strive to 'redefine the expert'. Once trained, we must pitch our spokespeople in ways that challenge and encourage journalists to see these voices -- especially those of people most directly impacted by issues and yet most disproportionately left out of the dialogue -- as the experts they indeed are, and to incorporate them into stories in a way that acknowledges their legitimacy, rather than demeaning or tokenizing them. Joining forces with journalists, bloggers and other on and offline media makers in this endeavor allows us to have our spokesperson's back, so to speak!
  • So despite our sentimentality for the old, we must evolve with the times, experiment, multitask, even as we hold to the PR "staples" of traditional media for as long as audiences are there. Invariably on the trips with Mom there were a lot of U-Turns involved, but we saw lots of new sights, learned new things, had a great time and eventually found our way. And I'm confident that we indeed will "find our way" in this evolving communications and media landscape. And borrowing my Mom's tenacious hope I will imagine we'll arrive from this rocky road trip with truth, accuracy, journalistic integrity, justice and a more informed and empowered citizenry intact.