The digital age promises that you can build an audience across a range of platforms. “Talk to them directly,” the mantra goes. It’s a liberating, unfiltered way to communicate messages directly to decision makers. It’s also unprecedented. Which may lead you wonder how much your communications strategy needs to worry about keeping the 800-pound mainstream media gorilla on your side. Does the traditional media really have that much power in the modern age of communication?
It depends on who you are.
The Curious Case Of Mike Baird
Take the case of Mike Baird. Briefly a Teflon premier in New South Wales. Youngish, comparatively handsome, a great haircut, and that matey-blokey strine that really talks to the average punter.
He’s even a Cold Chisel fan, though not exactly a Working Class Man. But you never know, perhaps Barnsey will bust out a new tune called “Banker and Second-generation Pollie” any day now. Bruce Baird’s son burst onto the national stage, not through any epic policy reforms. He tweeted something about The Bachelor. The verdict was unanimous. Mike Baird: Real As, mate.
Soon enough, there was talk of him being a PM contender. It all happened so quickly. The Bachelor tweet guy…great haircut…so hot right now.
But all wasn’t rosy. The tabloid media didn’t like it. Mike was building his own base. That means he might not need shock jocks. Might not give drops to the Tele – those “exclusive” stories dropped to a friendly journalist ahead of the official public announcement. The media is hungry and if you don’t feed them, they’ll feed on you.
The tabloid media fed on Baird. The Premier with a great haircut was using shock jocks and print media much less than his predecessors. Baird’s ex-communications director Imre Salusinzky talked about it in some detail as a conscious strategy. Modernising a communications strategy seems natural enough. It’s just using the available distribution platforms; just being where the audience gathers, right?
The Power Struggle Between Traditional Media And Politics
The media considers itself the gatekeeper. For centuries, they filtered your information. Anyone who wants to say something must do it through the media’s megaphone and woe betide anyone who thinks they can disrupt those established processes.
It’s the kind of disruption that contributes to a collapsed revenue model and thousands of redundancies.
And that’s fine if it’s some other sector, then it’s just Darwinian capitalism.
But if it’s media, then you better put up your dukes in a circular motion and prepare for some gentlemanly fisticuffs old boy.
Then they’ll kick you in the groin.
Baird went from Golden Boy Premier to PM contender, to wanting to spend more time with his family. All because he announced the dismantling of a dog death industry…on Facebook!
Ok that’s a simplification, but the media in Australia doesn’t cop prominent people using social media at the expense of their exclusive megaphone.
Not in the Clover
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has never had an easy relationship with the dominant media. Despite being popular enough to hold the elected position of Sydney Lord Mayor since 2004, and as an NSW parliamentarian from 1988-2012 (before new laws, dubbed “Get Clover”, forced her out), the tabloid media has always been particularly vicious to her.
Her use of digital media platforms from blogs, social, video, and whatever is relevant helped build and maintain an audience of voters persuaded by her vision. That is a problem because when Brand Clover gives voice to residents, it upsets the power dynamic between politics and media. It’s plausible that the sustained attacks on Clover by giants such as The Daily Telegraph and 2GB are not even part of the media diet consumed by her followers.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is not so fortunate. He too attempted to connect directly with voters at the expense of using shock jocks, but a large share of his followers are dining on the tabloid smorgasbord.
For Turnbull, like Clover, it’s a no-win situation. Conservative media do not accept him, so he has refused to deal with them, but in bypassing them has made them angrier. Broadcaster Ray Hadley even dished out the ultimate Australian burn, “elitist snob”.
It’s Trumps’ Media, We’re Just Living In It
Donald Trump may prove to be the exception. His war with the media is so heated that he declared the fourth estate “the enemy of the American People!”.
Trump’s use of digital platforms to connect directly with his base has had some success. I say “some success” because although he is currently president, the Trump experiment remains inconclusive.
An unlevel playing field
If you think it’s predictable for someone working at a comms agency to suggest that a war with the media is unwinnable, well, you’d be right. But we’re not alone.
NRL player Jarryd Hayne has had a turbulent relationship with the media for the same reasons as Baird, Clover, and Turnbull.
Hayne uses his own digital platforms and refuses to talk to the same media who insist that he lets them bash him. The result? Relentless bashing.
Another player who knows that situation is Mark Geyer, who suggested Hayne can’t win an unwinnable war.
“One of the worst things I ever did was take on the media,” Geyer told the Triple M Grill Team. “You can never beat the media. There’s too many of them.
“Especially if they’re writing the truth — which they were writing about me — I didn’t want to see the truth but they were writing the truth about me.”
Geyer was also implying that the media has got it right in criticising Hayne. But his logic is flawed. The “truth” Geyer speaks of stems from behaviour related to his own drug and alcohol abuse. Hayne has no such problems. He just won’t play the media’s game, and that drives them to war.
Secondly, Geyer’s retirement in 2000 was well before today’s digital megaphones became available.
The common theme among those going it alone is the theme of struggle.
Trump’s media war contributes to his stalled government. Turnbull’s leadership ratings show his grip on the top job is tenuous. Hayne is an amazing player who has lost control of a narrative that he’s a destabilising force. Baird is gone.
Clover is the exception. Her base is so big due to her time in office and tangible achievements. But jeebus, it must be tough getting smashed by the Murdoch army and shockjock militia every time without exception.
The Best Of Both Worlds
There is no doubt that a direct relationship between brands and audience is necessary for survival.
If you can create compelling content that speaks directly to audiences’ problems or interests, then your connection with them will endure. Your credibility and authenticity will withstand media attacks.
But you still need to back this up with good traditional media relations.
PR helps brands make those connections to the media to ensure your messages reach certain markets.
Baird managed to put offside a major stakeholder. This is not to say it was the fault of his vast media team. They applied a necessarily modern approach to communications and reputation management. However, the immense complexities of that particular minefield created an environment for failure – rightly or wrongly. The media won that fight, which for them was a fight for relevance.
Managing media relationships can be helped with professional guidance and long-standing relationships with key media in your sector. If you cut out the media completely, they can become a powerful enemy that affect the decisionmakers around you.
For Baird, it was his caucus. Once he lost caucus support amid a media assault, his premiership was over.
PR is a lot more than media relations. It’s an integrated communications strategy to ensure you have all things covered from social media to thought leadership, reputation management, corporate social responsibility programs, and media events management.
Just because there’s a new way of doing business, doesn’t mean you should abandon the old way entirely.
The power of different media channels is the ability to tailor different messages for different market segments. Ignoring the media completely could come back to rip off your arms, then your legs, then your face… better to invest in a PR groin guard for the odd kicking.
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