“Free newspaper?” Anyone?
This was the familiar offer that greeted Adelaide commuters at the train station last Thursday afternoon, only something was different. Not only were the people handing out copies of The Express probably more sharply dressed than they needed to be, closer inspection revealed the publisher was the South Australian government.
The content was effectively a series of press releases selling the 2017-18 state Budget, and those handing out the publication were from the state government.
Putting marketing materials in the form of a newspaper is not a new idea, but it is always controversial when government does it. This time is no different, judging by some of the commentary across social media and various online forums. There is a popular view that public relations ideas like The Express cross the line into a form of publicly funded propaganda that is unacceptable for government.
But the condemnation is not universal; there is also a popular view that the trick was so transparent and obvious, and the content so similar to other Budget communications materials, as to have little potential for harm in 2017.
“It’s no different from any other piece of informational material we put out,” said treasurer Tom Koutsantonis, according to an ABC report that also contains a video of the newspapers being handed out. “We put it on newspaper paper so people can read it easily on the train home.”
The ABC quotes the deputy editor of Adelaide’s local paper The Advertiser — which is highly critical of the Weatherill Labor government and the Budget — calling the fake newspaper “straight propaganda” because it did not present the opposition’s views and only contained information with a positive slant.
Obviously The Express did not meet the standards by which genuine independent newspapers are typically judged — and very often found wanting in Australia — but a more pertinent issue is whether it was identified clearly enough or dressed up as news so well that it fooled consumers into thinking they were reading an independent viewpoint. That seems unlikely. Australians hardly trust what they read in just because it’s in the newspaper, given the lack of apolitical news reporting and commentary across the media landscape.
And the suggestion that future governments might continue using the tactic, leading SA commuters to blindly accept whatever they read in their fake newspapers, seems somewhat alarmist.
More likely, readers will work out what’s going on pretty quickly and the recycled idea will go back out of fashion. If the dressed-up press releases really did interest more readers than the normal kind, this time around, it’s likely the effect will fade.
The Advertiser later reported 15,000 copies were printed at a cost of just $1230 total. Sounds like a bargain for the crafty comms staff whose efforts effectively bypassed the media, although they would also have to weigh up the negative sentiment generated by the suggestion that Treasury is trying to hoodwink the public.
The ABC video does not show the staffers and politicians identifying themselves as government representatives the newspaper as a government publication as they hand it out, although they could have done this at other times.
Free newspapers are also pretty familiar to a lot of capital-city commuters, who often find them handed out, stacked in cages or strewn around train carriages and are likely to glance at them without paying very close attention. One could say the format and the audience were chosen to get the unfiltered messages in front of the maximum number of eyeballs with their owners employing a minimum of crticial thinking.
The question for other government comms teams thinking of trying this tactic is: how far do you take it?
Just like advertisements that are arranged graphically to look like news articles, a mock newspaper and the people handing it out should openly identify themselves, ethically speaking, and there will rightly be a backlash if they don’t. This requirement alone must surely lead one to wonder if it is worth the effort.
Top image: ABC footage