Taking out the trash or burying the gold?
July 27, 2018 • 4 minute read
In a rush of activity before the long-awaited UK Parliamentary recess, government departments were busy ‘taking out the trash’ this week, publishing a flurry of written statements, policy updates and consultation responses.
These statements include innumerable press releases, news stories and speeches on subjects ranging from the biggest public sector pay rises in almost ten years to reminders of the rules around seahorses.
Flooding the media with so many documents and updates at once can be a smart, if Machiavellian, political comms strategy (particularly for governments under significant scrutiny), with the aim being to bury certain announcements or undesirable findings in the deluge and therefore prevent unwanted attention.
However, this can backfire if the potential good news stories are also lost in the deluge.
For example, arguably the biggest news to come out of ‘taking out the trash day’ was that around a million UK public sector workers will receive a pay rise. Whilst the media have picked this up, one wonders if the government missed an opportunity to make the most of this positive announcement after a decade of financial belt-tightening in public sector pay and amidst ongoing Brexit concerns.
While there are a few reasons why this government may want to shy away from public sector pay as an issue, there is clearly a case to be made for leveraging the positives. The broadly well-received announcements on the revised National Planning Policy Framework could be put into the same boat. Instead, the news was released just as parliament heads off on holiday.
In some respects, the barrage of pre-recess information represents a seasonal version of the ‘Friday Night Drop’. The FND emerged over two decades ago as a key tactic in financial public relations, with PRs leaking exclusive company information to a chosen City of London / Wall Street journalist on a Friday evening following the closure of the markets. The information would be used by the journalist in a key Sunday article, thus influencing share price come Monday morning market opening.
The practise was quickly adopted by political communicators, with governments and political parties using Friday evenings to leak – or ‘trail’ – potential policy ideas to key journalists, in order to use Sunday’s resultant coverage to test public reaction (often referred to as policy ‘kite-flying’). The technique was equally used to issue (and bury) the bad news in the Sunday newspapers that the government didn’t want to see front page of the weekday dailies.
The rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the growth of social media by the mid-2000s lead to the FND becoming a less effective tactic. These days, bad news is far more likely to see the light of day than in previous decades.
Nevertheless, the issue of timing the release of news (positive and negative) remains a key consideration for communicators in any field. The irony is that waiting until the last minute raises the chances of cynical assumptions (and headlines) being made.
It is a careful balancing act, but eagle-eyed reporters will find a story where there is one; how that story is found / delivered can have a significant impact on how it is perceived by the audience.