Why telling the truth is usually the best option: PRIA Breakfast with Stephen Mayne

I attended my first PRIA VIC breakfast this morning at the RACV Club for a presentation from well known media identity, journalist, and political and boardroom activist Stephen Mayne. His topic for discussion was ‘Why telling the truth is usually the best option’ exemplified with themes about transparency and accountability (note the term ‘usually’ in that header!).

As an activist Stephen points to the poor accountability of boards and puts pressure on companies to raise issues and affect change. Annual General Meetings are his weapon of choice for asking the ‘big’ questions. He calls one of his PR tactics.

Stephen set the stage with his presence as a former press secretary in Jeff Kennett’s media unit, a position that prompted his career as a governance activist and where he learned his first lesson:

‘Don’t pick fights with the media. They are thin skinned and they never forget.’

Stephen criticised the media today as sensationalist where negative stories, celebrity and sex sells. The focus is on being first out with news that is sensationalised beyond the credibility news deserves.

In 2000 he launched www.crikey.com.au, an independent ezine that aimed to put more information into the public domain to empower the public by giving them as much information as possible. ‘News’ is based on tips and information people send in and it is run as ‘from the source’ and not via journalistic editing. Of course this means a robust correction policy is in place. The aim is to generate online debate to end up with the facts.

Stephen greatly values traditional mainstream media and used the ABC and other radio networks to push and plug his cases/content on Crikey. He advises partnering with mainstream media and using it to hit a mass audience as the most effective way to operate.

Another tactic leveraged by Stephen was running for board election. There was a time when things were not looking good for the future of Crikey and Stephen needed to get his name out there and push traffic to the Crikey site. So he put himself forward to be elected to as many significant boards as possible.

And it worked. When you are up for board election your name and bio is sent to every member and stakeholder for each company and organisation. This meant Stephen and Crikey managed to get in front of hundreds of relevant people and his business was drawn out of the doldrums.

Today he is interviewed often and offers his commentary and research, news he generates himself such as ranking directors of boards using peer review. Stephen builds relationships with board members and asks them who they rank as the best/worst directors to get his result.

STEPHEN MAYNE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

‘Social media is overblown in terms of power. If anything matters it needs to have mainstream outplay and end in the mass media.’

These were his words which followed his description of Twitter as a one-way push out of information, a tool where he was yet to see a reaction and where he doesn’t see much engagement coming back.

But what he should have said was NO engagement coming back. Because I checked out his tweet stream and it is indeed all one way push from him with no engagement by him with any of his followers who don’t seem to tweet Stephen because he doesn’t tweet anyone else.

Before I continue I must emphasise and acknowledge his point about traditional mainstream media – it is indeed very powerful and relevant. Never underestimate the power of 10 seconds of TV or the front page of the newspaper.

But it is worth acknowledging when news from the online communities and social media is the content that makes it into the mainstream and when news breaks in the online space to audiences that equal or exceed those of traditional media.

I feel we must now look to where the online and the traditional cross-over and how they can work together, in sync to benefit the other medium.

So I asked him: do you think you’ve given social media a fair go? You said you don’t see much engagement on Twitter but you don’t engage any of your followers so how can you expect them to engage you?

Yes I was a bit scared to ask him this and his words about journos being thin skinned and never forgetting were in my mind when I approached him. But I’m glad I did. He was most affable and admitted himself to be a luddite when it comes to social media.

He also said, in a somewhat condescending manner, that it is more prolific for under 30s … I wanted to tell him the average age of social network users* is 37 but I kept my stats to myself.

I took this as my opportunity to push the case for the online community as a powerful community and resource where he would no doubt be able to gather support and advocacy for his own crusades, such as more women on boards.

Stephen described his role of playing in the upper echelons as ‘influencing the influencers’,  as if it were some kind of reason for not engaging the online space. So I explained the influence online communities are having when it comes to forcing change and making mainstream traditional news. I decided not to mention Obama but perhaps I should have?

I also asked if he knew what kind of push along the online community gives to his site, blogs or articles and he didn’t know.

Stephen expressed concern for the effects social media is having for journalists, specifically those who get information and data from Facebook, and citizen journalists. I wanted to hear more about these concerns but time was marching on. To his credit, Stephen did acknowledge the value of the online space for smaller, niche communities and the influence of social media for their decision making process.

MY THOUGHTS

There seems to be a disconnect between what Stephen has done/is doing/stands for and his views of the value of social media, something else I bitched out of asking raised with him.

For starters Crikey is an online news portal, its existence enabled by its online community and following. And now the Mayne Report is an online resource. The content is there for the social media using! Yes he has a strong presence in traditional media but I can’t help feel he would be pleasantly surprised at the level of noise he may be able to generate in the online space if he were to get in there, participate and engage at the grassroots level, his potential online following. So I told him that too.

Something else that baffled me: Stephen strives to achieve greater transparency and accountability from big corporates and ‘closed’ companies and organisations. This is often the same goal for online communities using the power of social media to publicly voice their concerns, raise debate and gain support. It is part of the proverbial ‘rules of engagement’. And companies and organisations that achieve this are rewarded with teams of their very own brand advocates.

The very nature of social media revolves around transparency, accountability and empowerment from sharing knowledge and information.

And here’s something I didn’t ask: are you deploying the very tactics you evade when it comes to avoiding the ‘tough’ questions? By not fully engaging the online community, is there an underlying fear of what they might say/do/cause for you? In the same way as board members and politicians try and evade your questions? Why are you not embracing the potential power of the people you’re crusading for?

Not sure if I cut through with any of my activism for new communications but I did manage to get the parkyoung business card into his jacket pocket (he put it there, not me!) and also revive his faded connection with my boss.

So, is this engaging enough for him, do you think?

*thanks for the stat Brian Solis


2 comments

  1. What a well written post Kimberely! Not really my department, but I do take your point about to communicate…you have to communicate :) Just been back on Twitter after a few days, so you got a result!


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