The experts

In a meeting, recently, I asked about how a particular media story had come into being. Mostly out of curiosity, because I do a lot of work analysing stories and their impact after publication, but I don’t do much on how they come to be stories in the first place.

Media liaison in community organisations is invariably the exclusive responsibility of executive officers and Board presidents. Mid-range orgs might hire a PR company and the major orgs (like VicHealth) will have their own media team.

Everyone else is counselled not to engage with the media.

Media engagement, in other words, is seen as a matter of organisational risk management.

Yet gay community life has become radically intermediated (Hurley, 2003).

What does that mean?

As a network of personal and social relationships, gay community still exists — but those relationships are inter-mediated, i.e. the connection is made through communications media. And our engagement with gay identity and community increasingly takes the form of consuming entertainment and news media, e.g. watching Glee and True Blood, rather than turning up in real spaces like gay clubs.

Something similar is beginning to happen in ethnic communities, as well (O’Mara, 2010).  In one refugee community in Melbourne, newly-arrived from one of the least developed countries on earth, I recently learned the best way to contact people is through word of mouth via Facebook and SMS. In another community, adult women bypass local health information altogether, and find information and entertainment in their own language via the Internet and cable television.

And all around Australia, agencies are earnestly trying to reach them with printed information, brochures and posters, in simple English and clunky translations.

In other words, if health promotion doesn’t engage with the media — news and entertainment, informative and social — that’s a recipe for irrelevance and ineffectiveness.  But the suggestion I heard was, ‘there’s no point in a bunch of health workers sitting around talking about the media.’  We should leave that to the experts.

So I was very interested to read this speech by long-time Labor Senator John Faulkner, talking about the impact of ‘leaving it to the experts’ on Labor’s effectiveness and relevance.  These words in particular:

Progressive, socially aware activists passionate about social and economic reform must never be outsiders to the Labor movement.

Labor cannot thrive as an association of political professionals focused on the machinery of electoral victory and forming, at best, contingent alliances with Australians motivated by and committed to ideals and policies.

A Party organisation staffed by experienced and competent strategists and managers is necessary to serve the campaign and organisational needs of Labor’s members and supporters, not to substitute for them.

The same is true for health promotion and community organisations.  Risk management is important, but it’s not our purpose.