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Media Advisers - Shadow players in political communication
  • Richard Phillipps, University of Sydney
Extract:Synopsis:It is a commonplace in political communication that the news media mediate wider political realities to their audiences. The extent to which that news content is itself mediated by others is a more ambiguous and problematic area. Perhaps because it is rarely directly visible to the public, the work of media advisers or press secretaries has become the subject of much speculation, with sweeping claims about their power. This thesis systematically explores the role of media advisers, a backroom group sometimes labelled spin-doctors or minders. Until now, this pivotal group in democratic political communication has not been the focus of academic investigation in Australia. This thesis redresses the situation by survey research and qualitative interviews across the nation from Canberra to Perth, as well as cases when they have become the focus of public attention or controversy. By studying their flesh-and-blood routine activities and their relationships with employers and with journalists, it seeks to demystify some of the speculations about their power, and to give more precision to their strategic role. The research establishes who these political shadow players are; mainly young (70 per cent under 40), well-educated (72 per cent with university degree), mainly males (67 per cent). For most, this is a second or later career position with the largest group having transferred from journalism. Survey and interviews investigate their daily work patterns. The thesis pinpoints their professional satisfactions and frustrations (an exciting and challenging, well paid job close to power, but uncertain and stressful, with little recognition). For both voluntary and involuntary reasons, this secret tribe of advisers exhibits a high degree of turnover, although a few have made a long-term career in media advising.Their external effectiveness depends firstly on having a cohesive internal base. The thesis examines their relations with their ministerial employers, others on the political staff and in the public service. Many found the closeness of working relations one of their major satisfactions. Even though they are sometimes critical of the results, all advisers stressed the importance of honesty and (relative) openness in their relations with journalists. Similarly the overwhelming view was that their positions were honestly presented in most media, and relationships mainly cordial. Nevertheless the thesis also examines many cases where public relations strategies badly misfired, and controversies where advisers have lost their jobs, even if the central fault was not necessarily theirs.Advisers were found to have divergent views on some burning topics in political communication - on why restrictions on the right to publish are important, whether for state security or politicians' privacy; how responsibly they think policies and personalities are reported, and what could be done to improve communication between ministers and political reporters. On these issues, their views are as diverse as exist among journalists or among the more educated in Australian society. On the whole, however, despite the negative stereotypes, they suggest, perhaps because of their journalism backgrounds, that media advisers are, more often than not, a force for greater public disclosure within government.The mostly unwritten rules under which advisers operate are examined and ways in which these could be codified and strengthened are proposed. Codes without means of enforcement serve no purpose beyond window-dressing and most advisers were not in favour of having'to make a stressful job more arduous by having to adhere to a set of externally-imposed ethical guidelines.
  • politics,
  • media,
  • key relationships,
  • ethics,
  • public relations
Publication Date
March 25, 2002
Citation Information
Richard Phillipps. "Media Advisers - Shadow players in political communication" (2002)
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