One of the fascinating aspects of my involvement in Voices for the Library has been working with Lauren and the rest of the team in developing strong links with the media (both local and national). As time has passed, I think we have all realised that there are a lot of media types who have a great deal of affection for libraries. Certainly, my interactions with various journalists have been very positive. Every single one has been supportive and keen to find out more about the situation facing public libraries across the country. Ok, sometimes these interactions do not always necessarily lead to stories in the national press or on the TV, but it isn’t always about getting a story out there (much as we would like it to be so), sometimes it is simply about building a relationship – the importance of this for the campaign cannot be underestimated.
I have been lucky so far in that a few things I have brought to the attention of various media outlets have been picked up (like my financial analysis of the libraries vs internet debate – picked up by The Guardian). However, most stuff tends to go nowhere – again, whilst this can be frustrating, it is worth remembering that not everything can be published (space is finite after all) and the creation of relationships will lead to greater benefits in the long run. That said, sometimes you push something, a story about a particularly authority or campaign, and it can pay off in spectacular fashion.
Let me give you an example a little while ago I was invited to a lunch hosted by a certain satirical magazine. The lunch provides an opportunity for politicians, newspaper columnists and journalists to network and share stories. I have already witnessed how one news story seemed to grow and flourish in the days and weeks after the lunch (the so-called ‘super injunctions’). I perhaps didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, but they are great opportunities to develop relationships and plant seeds.
One of the people I got talking to was (I later discovered) an important figure in national broadcast news. We talked extensively about the situation facing public libraries, the closures and their potential impact on local communities. Again, as mentioned above, there was a great deal of sympathy in terms of the plight of public libraries, not least in terms of the impact on those that use them.
After a long and engaging conversation, I was handed their business card and told to get in touch if anything of interest crops up in the future. Realising the importance of gaining such a key contact in the media, I resolved to make use of this new avenue wisely and sparingly. There was no point sending them every story that came along. It was important to choose a story that would be significant and highly newsworthy. And then a story emerged that fitted the bill perfectly.
Johanna Anderson and the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have been fighting a long and difficult battle with their local council over the future of public libraries. Despite garnering widespread local support, the campaign was continuing to face an uphill struggle in convincing the local council that their proposed cuts to libraries should be rolled back. The disregard shown by the council leader for his electorate was breathtaking. Contempt for both library campaigners and library users seemed to be his default position. In such circumstances it is hard to imagine how Jo and FoGL had the strength to continue to take on the council. Many would have conceded defeat and walked away.
But there then emerged a glimmer of hope for library users in Gloucestershire. The High Court had issued an injunction (pending a hearing earlier this month) against Gloucestershire County Council calling a halt to their proposals for the future of the library service in the county. This was unprecedented. It was also just the story I had been waiting for. Not only was this about library closures, but the legal aspect made for an added dimension to the story, one that may have implications for other such battles against both central and local government cuts. This story had scope for expansion and, therefore, had the potential for coverage by a national broadcaster. So, I tipped them off and, with the help of Jo, put them in touch with someone involved in the local campaign. This was the result:
I was chuffed to bits that this kind of coverage had been secured. It demonstrated to me, once again, that there is a willingness to engage on the library closure issue and, furthermore, that if a particular story can be shown to have wider implications, it is more than likely to gain exposure. It is no good just trying to engage with the media simply about libraries, if you can link it into something bigger you have more chance for success.
I guess this is the biggest lesson I have learnt since getting involved in Voices for the Library. It has taken just under a year to learn it, but I have come to realise that it is important to think strategically about all interactions with the media. It is easy (and very tempting) to just go ahead and send everything that crops up, no matter their significance. It is, however, far more sensible to wait for that significant story to crop up and, when the time is right, hit ‘send’. It’s a lesson I am still learning (there are still more ‘misses’ than ‘hits’) but it is without doubt the most important lesson I have learnt from my involvement in Voices for the Library. Well, that and learning what can be achieved when you work with a bunch of passionate, talented people who give everything to keep this campaign running. I really am very lucky indeed.
* Incidentally, permission was granted for a High Court judicial review of GCC’s library cuts. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better good news for the dedicated and hard-working campaigners in Gloucestershire.