Media attention quickens action

Last updated 05:00 22/06/2013

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An elderly woman sits in her quake-damaged home for nearly a year - through two snowstorms - without adequate heating.

She has complained many times, but feels no-one is listening to her plight.

After ringing the media, the woman gets a heatpump installed within a day.

Such tales are becoming increasingly common in Christchurch, as many people feel media attention is the only way to be heard.

Even Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee recognises that media attention is often the best way to get action as was evidenced by the "media missile" he fired the Christchurch City Council's way last week when he revealed the problems it was facing with its consenting.

However, experts are becoming frustrated that only dealing with cases highlighted by the media does not fix underlying problems.

Wider Earthquake Communities Action Network spokesman Mike Coleman said he had realised "very early on" that people only got traction once they "hit pages in The Press or were on Campbell Live".

"I don't know any cases highlighted by media that have not had movement on their claim. People across the city are writing emails, asking for OIAs, calling EQC and insurance companies on a regular basis, [but] they get nowhere unless they go to the media."

He believed it was easier for the city's key players to fix a small number of cases to avoid negative press.

"It is easier for them to sort the very small number of situations highlighted by the media than to ensure the most vulnerable are getting movement."

CanCern spokeswoman Leanne Curtis agreed she saw cases "all the time" where people had been "struggling for months" before going to the media and getting an immediate response.

"I think there's a couple of reasons why they get fixed immediately. Nobody wants bad press and the companies can use a media story as an opportunity for a ‘win' by fixing someone's problem," she said.

"Also I think the media makes these stories more visible to the big wigs at the organisations so that they are aware of some of the awful things that are happening out there."

She was angry with the prioritising of media cases, saying it was "flawed".

"It's only fixing individual cases and not looking at the hundreds of other people out there who are in similar situations. They fix a person's house but they don't fix the problems that led to them being in that situation."

Journalism expert Tara Ross agreed highlighting individual cases was not fixing wider issues.

The danger was that the media only reported the "easy, anecdotal" stories which could be turned around on tight deadlines, Ross said. "We might help a few individuals - and fill the front page of the newspaper - but do we actually get any closer to solving what are bigger problems?

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"What the media need to be doing is investigating the wider, systemic issues and their root causes. That is more likely to lead to wider change, and help many more people."

Christchurch city councillor Glenn Livingstone agreed the community shouldn't have to resort to the media to get their problems fixed.

"If the media is needed to gain traction, then, for me, that is symptomatic of a city where questions must be asked of its public servants and all those who purport to undertake their role in the best interests of the public as to who they are serving."

Livingstone said that as well as using the media, some people had furthered their claims through writing to MPs or advocacy groups.

He said people were "often successful" through these methods, but said councillors, MPs and advocacy groups often used media to "get traction on issues if they come up against roadblocks".

"If that is what it takes, I support that."

EQC manager of the Canterbury Home Repair Programme Reid Stiven said they were approached through a variety of channels, including media, to intervene on behalf of customers.

"If we find that is the case, we will do what we can, because it's the right thing to do, not for any public relations purposes."

Some people used the threat of adverse media coverage as leverage to get what they may not be entitled to, Stiven said.

"There have been times when customers have endeavoured to pressure us through media and we have had to stand firm, despite the negative publicity."

A city council spokesman said he did not believe that cases in the media were prioritised, especially in the two consent delay examples cited by The Press.

"Christchurch City Council processes consent applications on a first-come, first-served basis, though we do prioritise some jobs where it is critical to public safety and health. Media attention does not make any difference to this process."

Public Relations Institute of New Zealand southern division chairwoman Lee Harris agreed highlighting cases where "people are genuinely being given the run-around" was an "excellent way for the media to use its considerable power to make a difference".

However, she said the media had to be ethical and not "abuse people's experiences to create better headlines".

"It's a fine line and the community is reliant on the media bosses knowing when to be ethical and resist the urge to emphasise cases or situations that aren't actually as bad as the media is making out."

- Canterbury

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