A guide to dumbing down for silly season


This piece was published in the Herald a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully we’re coming out of silly season now… 

 

Each year around this time, offices empty out, the TV schedules are replete with repeats, and the West of Ireland fills with Dubliners on retreat from the real world. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the unlucky ones still trying to carry on normal life during silly season. This, you see, is when they pounce.

The politicians. The ones who’ve been quietly biding their time all year in Ballygobackwards, waiting for newsrooms to empty out and for desperate editors to take desperate measures. The ones Killinascully is modelled on. The Jackie Healy-Rae wannabes of this world.

As journalists, we’re all ready for silly season. Those of us with enough cop-on and annual leave days left get out of dodge with the rest of the office-working world.

The rest end up stuck in sleepy newsrooms, waiting anxiously for phones to ring, leaving endless voicemails for politicians, celebrities and officials of all stripes, and hoping for that football-playing dog from X Factor to do a tour of the British Isles for the photo opp. Fielding press releases with headlines like ‘It’s Officially National Happiness Day’ (queries as to which ‘official’ decided this have gone unanswered), we desperately work with what we’ve got.

And so we end up with headlines like ‘Councillor calls for burkas to be banned’ (Cork, 2012); ‘Councillor slams inaccurate Donegal weather forecasts’ (Donegal, 2012);‘Councillor calls for boy racers to provide taxi service’ (Kerry, 2013); ‘Councillor slams roundabout’ (Laois, 2013); ‘MEP seeks meeting with Belgian King’ (Munster, this week) ‘Councillor calls for army to move Travellers’ (Donegal, yesterday). They’re the media equivalent of that child in the class who’s left shouting “Sir!Sir!sirsirsirsirsirsirsirsir!!” after everyone else is gone out to play. The teacher is left with no option but to take little Seamus seriously because, God knows, nobody else will listen to him.

And thus is silly season dumbed down even further. The range of randomness that’s been landing in my inbox of late makes me wonder if there is a PR company somewhere advising these guys to strike while the iron is hot, and get the column inches while everyone’s on holidays. If there isn’t, there should be. In fact, in the spirit of Tweak, that website set up by the Irish media entrepreneur Jerry Kenneally, which provides a full suite of graphic design logo and branding options at the click of a mouse, I suggest a political PR ‘warehouse’ that hardworking councillors could use to assemble press releases to be launched at the unsuspecting media. A sort of
‘fill in the blanks’ PR system where you just choose your location, prejudice and target market, and press ‘send’.

I would call it Shpin. This brainchild, this idea which I am pretty sure would make me big money on Dragon’s Den (are you reading this, moneybags?), but am giving to the world gratis, would provide a suite of custom made press releases – much like some political party press offices – designed to get you maximum column inches. You need to hit a few particular bases to ensure that you are guaranteed coverage. Think of it as political press release bingo.

Here’s a little guide to dumbing down for silly season.
1. The first thing that’s guaranteed to get you coverage is Jobs. With a capital J. So, protecting Jobs, creating Jobs, high value Jobs, knowledge economy Jobs (bonus point!), Jobs for the boys. You get the message: Jobs. People like them.

2. The second one is choosing something that will mark you out from the crowd. The old PC brigade, that is. Basically you need to offend someone. Pick an ethnic group that won’t fight back, or a group that doesn’t read, listen to or watch the outlet you’re aiming for. So, for example, if you’re a councillor in Buncrana, use the local media outlet to slam Met Éireann. Sure those meteorologists only read the Dublin papers. You’ve done what you set out to do. Your constituents know you care. At least, they know your name now, anyway.

3., The third point is to ‘slam’ someone. Anyone! It’s easy! In real life, slamming things would land you in prison, but of course slamming things in a press release or an interview is rather less about force and more about spittle, and conveniently short and punchy headlines. You can slam a roundabout (see above), signage, council staff in your area, dog poo, Dutch weather forecasters, Spanish fishermen, whatever! So for example ‘Councillor slams Spanish fishermen for stealing our jobs’. You’ve hit all the bases here. Or ‘Councillor calls for ban on shorts as local weaving jobs dry up’… or ‘Councillor slams barbecues putting restaurant workers out of business’. As a news consumer, there’s only one solution; enjoy the video of the footballing dog, and thank your lucky stars that councillor represents somewhere you only pass through on your way to the seaside

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