What news management strategies do pressure groups use? How successful have they been in managing the news agenda?
The term' pressure group' is a loose one that encompasses thousands of different types of organisations representing a vast variety of different causes and aims. Pressure groups can range from small, single-issue local community groups such as the Central Leamington Residents Association (CLARA), with less than 300 households as members, to huge associations like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which represents over 150,000 businesses in the UK (historylearningsite.co.uk, 2010). Pressure groups are not only distinguished by size, cause, and aim but also by their levels of extremism. For example, the pressure group, the Animal Liberation Front, has frequently indulged in illegal activities to further its aims. Pressure groups may also have strong links to political parties. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), for example, positions itself as an independent research organisation (IPPR website, 2010) but it actually has a close relationship with the Labour party and was Tony Blair's 'think tank' of choice during his time as Prime Minister (Grice, A., 2002).
Despite this enormous array of divergent pressure groups, they generally all have one thing in common. Pressure groups all seek to get their messages across, raise their profiles, and ultimately further their aims, through the news media. However, a barrier to success in this respect is the growing competition for attention by the media. Society in general is becoming increasingly 'media aware' with the result that pressure groups are competing against nation states, international corporations, commercial enterprises, celebrities, and social movements for valuable 'media space'. As well as this competition for media space, pressure groups have to contend with the fragmentation and globalisation of the news media. The previously held dominant positions of television and newspapers have now come to end and the internet has become the ubiquitous communication tool of the 21st century. Since 2006, the proportion of Americans who visit news websites on at least three days a week has increased from 31% to 37%. This rise in the use of the internet as a news medium has corresponded with the decline of more traditional media. Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Americans who read a daily newspaper has declined by about 40% whilst the proportion that watches nightly TV network news on a regular basis has declined by 50% (Pew Research Center, 2008).
So for pressure groups to successfully manage the news agenda and secure their share of the news 'cake' they cannot simply depend on the newsworthiness of their stories. To succeed in managing the news agenda to any degree, they have to be adept at understanding the ever changing media landscape and have the ability to execute effective news management strategies across the entire media mix. It is very rare for this combination of skills to exist within a pressure group organisation itself. Consequently, most pressure groups rely on retaining experts from the public relations industry, which is made up of an army of consultancies, 'spin doctors', and lobbyists. These specialists have the knowledge and ability to use the channels to media that were previously the mainly the domain of commercial and political interest groups, for the benefit of pressure groups.
This is not to say that 'in house', pressure group specialists, capable of executing effective news management strategies, do not exist, they certainly do. Indeed, a case in point is the 'Make Poverty History' campaign from 2005. Its aim was to raise awareness of global poverty and to make governments, particularly those of the eight most industrialised nations, take action to reduce global poverty. The campaign was managed by a team of experts from a coalition of charities and also benefitted greatly from the involvement of high profile celebrities like Bob Geldof. Its major promotional platform was a series of concerts involving 150 bands that took place simultaneously in ten venues around the world. The concerts attracted an estimated television audience of some three billion people (Grant, W, 2006). In its entirety the campaign was very successful at managing the news agenda. Its news management strategy worked because it was campaign and event led. As well as its triumph on television, its story was highly visible in the print medium with over 6000 pieces of news coverage being recorded by the campaign's media evaluation agency, Metrica, who also estimated that 72% of all adults in the UK were made aware of the campaign (Make Poverty History, 2006).
The campaign team also recognised the value of the internet as part of a mixed media news management strategy. A specialist online media consultancy for pressure groups, FairSay, deployed the internet to provide a special coalition website in the lead up to, and during, the special campaign events. It also managed to replicate in the online medium the news coverage that was achieved in the print and broadcast media, as well as gaining exclusive online news coverage for certain aspects of the campaign (Raymond, D. 2006). Overall the campaign team succeeded in managing the news agenda to such an extent that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's then Director of Communications, referred to the Make Poverty History campaign as 'a brilliant example' (Raymond, D. 2006. page 5) of using the news media for campaigning purposes.
Perhaps one of the highest profile and best-known pressure groups is Greenpeace which campaigns for 'changes in attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace'. (Greenpeace website, 2010). Greenpeace's general strategy is to focus on creative, non violent action to gain media attention, and thus support from the public at large, for certain topical issues. Greenpeace has possibly mastered the art of effective news management better than any other pressure group. In 2001 two Greenpeace activists climbed the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada and unfolded a huge banner that declared that Canada and President George Bush were 'Climate Killers'. This message referred to the U.S. Government's opposition, (supported by Canada) to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Without this Greenpeace action, the news media would probably not have highlighted the fact that it was United States and Canada who were the two main powers behind the opposition to the protocol (Page, G.C., 2010).
Elaine Adams from the Greenpeace International communication department in London has been involved in the successful news management of a number of actions. She says that what Greenpeace activists do has to be creative, dramatic and entertaining if it is to gain news coverage. She also says that 'it is always better when people get arrested' (Page, G.C., 2010). One action that fulfilled all of these criteria for a successful news management strategy was the day in June 2009 when five Greenpeace climate change protestors climbed aboard a cargo ship at sea which was delivering coal to a power station in Kent. The five pulled alongside the ship in an inflatable raft and, after boarding the ship, managed to climb the foremast of the vessel. News coverage of the action was extensive on TV, in print and online (Martin, A., 2009).
However, Greenpeace has not always been successful at managing the news agenda positively in support of its goals. Generally, the news media has been very supportive of both its aims and methods but, as in many pressure groups, Greenpeace has a fringe element that does not always toe the party line. This element within the membership has, on occasions, caused the news media to stray from its positive path. A case in point was in 1999 during the height of the public and media debate on GM Crops. An executive director of Greenpeace, Lord Peter Melchett, and twenty-seven other activists were arrested for causing criminal damage to a GM maize crop which was being trialled on a farm in Norfolk. The problem with the action was that the crop was part of a genuine scientific trial and the Greenpeace action was viewed as 'mindless and undemocratic' by the independent, non-profit organisation, the Social Issues Research Centre, in an online article entitled 'the tide turns against Greenpeace'. (2010).
Another pressure group that has successfully moved its cause up the news agenda is the campaigning group, the Taxpayers Alliance. The group's fundamental massage is that the state is wasteful and that Britons are paying too much tax. Similar groups exist elsewhere in Europe and 'competitive' groups and think tanks on the issue exist in Britain. However, the Taxpayers Alliance claims that it is different because of the way that it packages and markets itself to the news media (Wheeler, B., 2008). The Alliance's campaigns on such topical issues as inheritance tax, 'non jobs' in the public sector and especially MPs' expenses have achieved significant amounts of news coverage. Indeed the group claims that it is averaging three media 'hits' per day. It is doing this by using the Government's own published data, together with facts gained from requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act, to get to the bottom of stories about wasteful practices in the public sector, for which the general public appears to have an insatiable appetite. Chief Executive and founder, Matthew Elliot says:
'They (journalists) haven't got time to do a lot of the investigative stuff they used to do in the past. So when we present them with some primary source material, it's guaranteed to be a good story (Wheeler, B. BBC News Website, 2008).
He goes onto say that the success of the Taxpayers Alliance is also due, in part, to the fact that that there is now a penchant by the news media for professional and credible spokespeople that represent genuine interest groups with grievances in the UK. The taxpayers Alliance fulfils this desire and consequently enjoys more than its fair share of media coverage. Indeed, according to Jamie Merrill of the Independent (2008), it gets some of the highest levels of media coverage in the UK - up to ten hits a day (as opposed to the three claimed by the group's Chief Executive). Paul Lashmar, lecturer in journalism at University College Falmouth, supports the view that the Taxpayers Alliance news management strategy of ready-packaged news stories with no research requirement from the receiving journalist is fundamental to its success. His opinion is that nowadays journalists do not have the time or resources to carry out thorough research before publishing a story and, consequently, they are grateful when someone else does it for them and packages the whole thing in such a way that it is ready to go straight into the paper with very little, if any, editing (Merrill, J., 2008).
The rise of pressure groups campaigning on multifarious issues over the last 20 years or so has been inexorable. Alongside the environment, the issue of food safety has been at the fore. There are numerous groups campaigning on this issue but, perhaps most inetestingly, pressure groups have infiltrated the media iself. This is eveidenced by the existence of the 'Guild of Food Writers' which includes both activists and career journalists (Maurer D., et al, 1995). However, the issue of food safety only really started to set the news agenda in 1983 when the 'salmonella in eggs' crisis hit the headlines following a damaging statement on television by the then junior health minister, Edwina Currie. The scare story escalated rapidly and, as the government dithered, the 'news vacuum' was filled with statements from pressure groups like the London Food Commission and the National Farmers Union. However, it was pressure from an individual, rather than a group, that really helped to set the news agenda on the issue. Renowned government critic, Professor Richard Lacey, had a total of 18 interviews and mentions about the Salmonella crisis in news programmes at the time, which equalled the number from the Government itself (Maurer, D. et al, 1995).
In conclusion, it can be seen that a number of high profile pressure groups, and sometimes even individuals acting alone, have been highly successful in achieving their various goals through the use of distinctive, and professionally executed, news management strategies. It has not been enough to simply issue a news release or statement outlining a particular grievance or position on an issue; rather it has been necessary to use creative news angles to gain the attention of the media. Certain pressure groups, like Greenpeace and Make Poverty History, have learnt this lesson and have built highly effective campaigns around high prolife actions and events that have provided the news media with dramatic visual images and hard hitting, often controversial words. The news media has digested all of this with relish and pressure groups have consistently seized the media initiative on key issues away from Governments. Some may argue that pressure groups have become too powerful and have unduly influenced public opinion in an undemocratic way through their skilful use of the news media. Indeed more people are joining pressure groups whilst fewer are joining political parties (Wheeler, B. 2008). This has been exacerbated by groups like the Taxpayers Alliance successfully exploiting the news media by presenting hard facts and figures about the wasteful ways of our politicians.
Another crucial factor in the ability of pressure groups to manage the news agenda has been the rise of the internet as a news medium. It is not just the reach and power of the internet that has boosted the campaigns of many pressure groups but also the fact that, in most cases, it is either free or very low cost to use for news dissemination purposes. Also, most TV news broadcasters now have round-the-clock programming meaning that there is always a demand for more and more news. Pressure groups, represented by ordinary people with their ready packaged, well-researched campaigns and dramatic events, actions and stories, will always be welcomed by hard-pressed news journalists (Wheeler, B. 2008).
- Grant, W., 2006. Pressure Groups and British Politics. Chapter Five, Pressure Groups. The Politics of Pressure. Page 128 - 'Ending Global Poverty'. Published by Palgrave Macmillan.
- Greenpeace website, 2010. 'About us' <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/about>. Accessed 28.02.10
- Grice, A., 2002. The Independent. 'News Analysis: 'Do think-tanks still have a role in shaping the political agenda?'<.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/news-analysis-do-thinktanks-still-have-a-role-in-shaping-the-political-agenda-749562.html>. Accessed 27.02.10
- historylearningsite.co.uk, 2010. 'What are Pressure Groups?' <.http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/what_are_pressure_groups.htm>. Accessed 27.02.10
- IPPR website, 2010. 'About IPPR' <.http://www.ippr.org.na/aboutus.html>. Accessed 27.02.10
- Make Poverty History, 2006. 'Measuring the reach of the Make Poverty History media campaign'. <.http://www.makepovertyhistory.org/docs/measuringreachofmph.pdf>. Accessed 27.02.10
- Martin, A., 2009. Mail online. 'Pictured: The dramatic moment Greenpeace protesters stormed a coal ship'. <.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1194646/Pictured-The-dramatic-moment-Greenpeace-protesters-stormed-coal-ship.html>. Accessed 28.02.10
- Maurer D., et al, 1995. 'Eating Agendas: Food and Nutrition as Social Problems'. Walter De Gruyter, Inc. New York, pages 317-323.
- Merrill, J., 2008. The Independent. 'How the Taxpayers' Alliance is making headlines'. <.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/how-the-taxpayers-alliance-is-making-headlines-884087.html>. Accessed 28.02.10
- Page, G.C., 2010. 'Greenpeace's Campaign Strategies'. <.http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/v20n3p13.htm>. Accessed 28.02.10
- Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2001. 'Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources. Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment' <.http://people-press.org/report/444/news-media>. Accessed 26.02.10
- Raymond, D. 2006. FairSay Limited 'Make Poverty History New Media Review'. <.http://www.scribd.com/doc/1037427/Make-Poverty-History-New-Media-Review>. Accessed 27.01.10
- Social Issues Research Centre. 'The tide turns against Greenpeace'. <.http://www.sirc.org/articles/tide_against_greenpeace.html>. Accessed 28.02.10
- Wheeler, B., 2008. BBC News Website. 'The campaign group: Taxpayers' Alliance'. <.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/7241315.stm>. Accessed 28.02.10
- and 'The rise of single issue campaigns'. <.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/7188823.stm>. Accessed 01.03.10