Most mainstream British media outlets are calling for the UK to leave the EU, and its single most potent media entity, the BBC, has to remain on the fence somewhat given that it is publicly funded. As things stand, just about as many Brits would like to leave the EU as favour remaining.

In the US, other than a couple of New York tabloids, mainstream media describes Trump as an inept, vile and dangerous charlatan. Yet a majority of Republican primary voters across every demographic would be comfortable having him as their President.

Clearly, we’re not comparing like for like. Referendum polls comprise every UK demographic, while Republican primary voters represent a very small proportion of all Americans. If the entire US were polled, support for Trump would be lower than support for Brexit in the UK. And while Trump and Brexit are both populist-driven phenomena that portray a paranoid worldview in which elites and foreigners are ganging up on the common man, non-swivelling Brexit types do have some intellectually legitimate claims, although they’re largely crowded out by vitriolic, tabloid inspired foreigner-bashing, while Trump is pure populism.

But the paradox of simultaneous, populist spectacles occurring within such wildly contrasting media realities does raise interesting questions about media influence.

Does the volume of pro-Brexit press simply imply that British mainstream media is more influential than its American counterpart? Quite likely. The US media landscape is far more fragmented, comprising highly partisan radio stations and blogs that constitute the only source of news for many people. Despite dwindling readership figures, mainstream media remains quite dominant in the UK.

A more interesting nuance is the notion that media influence can work back to front. Media opposition in the US is inverse to Trump’s popularity, given that his entire campaign narrative is that out-of-touch elites, including mainstream media, are the enemy of the common man. So the theory reads that US media remains influential amongst Trump’s constituencies, but in persuading them to take the furthest contrasting view possible.

Another theory suggests that the Republican establishment and conservative media – Fox News in particular – have been instrumental in creating an environment in which Trump is an acceptable candidate. David Remnick of the New Yorker has written that the Republican establishment has exploited the “darkest American undercurrents” from Nixon’s Southern Strategy of attracting voters opposed to civil rights through to the birther movement. Their perpetual hostility and intransigence, with the likes of Fox as their mouthpiece, have gradually changed the nature of what is tolerable in American political discourse, and Trump is its ultimate consequence. Although Trump is too extreme now even for Fox News, media has arguably been highly influential in paving the way for his ascendance.

A further interesting area worth exploring is media influence vs. personal salience. Supporting Trump often represents a response to personal grievances, while Brexit remains a fairly distant and abstract political matter. Trump supporters grew up in a world of simple certainties: America was the greatest nation on earth, the American dream was alive and well, and Americans could look forward to a life of prosperity and happiness. That’s not entirely the case anymore, and however misguided, they believe in the simple and brutal solutions Trump espouses, and think that he will turn the clock back. Brexit is about the EU. No one cares that much about the EU. For all the jingoistic talk of taking power back and controlling borders, most Brexit supporters do not think quitting the EU is a last resort to making their deteriorating lives better. They support Brexit because it is broadly in line with their worldview, as represented by the media they consume. I suspect there is near perfect alignment between papers people read and how they will vote in the referendum. In summary: most Brexit supporters don’t know or care all that much about Brexit, however excitable they get in the run-up to the referendum, and choose to adhere to the views of their favoured news source, while Trump supporters care very much about their livelihoods and fervently believe in Trump, but are more likely to have relied on gut instinct and their peers to decide he’s their man, rather than some newspaper.

So what do Brexit and Trump tell us about media influence? All wild conjecture on my part, but probably the following: that it still matters greatly, but in a more fluid and complex way than ever; and that its influence is greater on matters that people are less committed to, as they require the media outlet that represents their world view to define their position.

Based on a conversation with a seasoned corporate communicator:

In the mid 80s, when the person in question started their career, any adverse reporting was deemed harmful. Press-clipping syndrome was very prevalent, meaning that anything published that could be deemed critical was taken very seriously indeed. This was an age when NGOs were just starting out and industry-bashing was in its infancy, so the fuss was probably all a little pointless.

In the nineties, and the noughties especially, with the web and social media taking off, the issue of loss of message-control was very prevalent. The fact that Tom, Dick and Harry could say whatever they wanted and gain an audience was seen as an existential threat. Press-clipping syndrome remained somewhat prevalent, and coupled with the might of the NGOs that were supporting Tom, Dick and Harry in their endeavours, critical reporting was deemed very dangerous indeed and increasingly hard to manage given the proliferation of channels.

In 2012, it’s all still pretty frightening, although not ALL stuff that is published and in the public domain is deemed as potentially dangerous. We’ve got better at differentiating: high-influence, high-quality influencers we care about, trolls, less so. This probably stems in part from the fact that industry has got better at using the channels itself and so essentially understands them and the threat that a single event may represent far better than just a few years ago.

In the future? 2012 evolved: adverse coverage will continue, but it will seldom come as a surprise. Organisations will be fully ingrained in the social media space, and numerous people will be entitled to track and respond, not just a couple of spokespeople. Individually, that which is deemed harmful will also develop. For instance, while we now hear of firms not hiring someone because they’ve found pictures of them on an all-night bender, in future, surely, people’s records online will be so comprehensive that we’ll expect nothing less!

Here’s something we hear all the time: “Our issue is really important but public awareness of the threat (or opportunity) isn’t great enough. For this reason there isn’t enough pressure on politicians for them to place it high in their agendas. What do we do?”

PA types have traditionally had a media “plus” approach to this sort of conundrum. They’ll make sure they have some sound collateral to demonstrate why the issue is important (facts and figures, reports and the like) and feed this to media and policy types. This approach is fine, but it’s usually not enough to move the public opinion pin because of the nature of media cycles. The issue collateral might be very good and get media pick-up and be big news for a few days if not weeks, but it then flounders again. And when momentum drops, so does the likelihood that the pin will shift, and policy makers invariably lose interest too.

What’s needed to shift the pin? Sustained dialogue and momentum around the issue over a protracted period of time, and this is incredibly difficult to attain with a media plus approach only, given that momentum tends to run in tandem with media cycles.

Enter digital. Creating and fostering a really compelling ongoing narrative around an issue online, and engaging with people in the online space who are interested in the same issue, can be a more effective way of maintaining momentum. And in no way does this approach preclude traditional tactics like government relations or media engagement. In fact, it strengthens both because there is more input to feed into the storyline which is shared with policy-makers and media i.e. the narrative has gone from being about just the collateral i.e. the report, facts and figures (whatever) to being about the conversation and whatever can be gleaned from it, which makes a more compelling story and helps maintain issue momentum (and ultimately shift the pin.)

I spent a fair few hours today taking “story-lines” and hooks that have been developed for media work by someone else and seeing if I could build an online approach based on these same ideas.

Result in a nutshell? To some extent yes: what works for journalists can work for online audiences. Makes sense, as journalists are looking to write stories that attract the same people we’re looking to reach online.

There are some differences though:

  • What will resonate with online audiences or might go viral is much broader than what could work with the press. Again, makes sense. There’s not that much actual space in traditional media and journalists have editorial guidelines and so on. Online, there’s millions of people out there and the publication space is endless. So whereas with the press you need a certain type of story and quality to get them interested, all sorts of other things will work with a global online audience, from a one-line joke on Twitter, a comment on someone else’s blog, to a video on YouTube etc etc.
  • The scope of what you can get your target to do is far broader. With media relations you’re trying to get your target – the journalist – to print a story. What happens after that is a bonus. Online, there’s getting someone to reproduce or forward your story, so the same sort of thing, but on top of that you can get them to do lots of other things, be it vote, comment, mobilise or participate in whatever other way you can dream up.
  • At the same time, you need to be a little more careful. Send a journalist a bad pitch and it’s binned. Put something rubbish or inaccurate online and the magic of cut-and-paste and instant publication might mean it does the rounds globally before you get up the next morning.

Most PA and PR professionals have understood that the web is important, which is great. However, they often get very excited about bloggers and then seem to stop there, as if the web had nothing more to offer. This is a mistake. No only do they lose track of the many other online tools at their disposal, but their lack of a “bigger picture” focus also results in them treating blogger relations as nothing more than an extension of media relations.

I’ll be writing about this again in future, but here’s a first few points I’d highlight. Simply treating blogger relations like media relations, and approaching bloggers like you would journalists, is a mistake. Sure, there’s room for building relationships with bloggers just like there is with journalists, but whereas journalists write for a living, bloggers write because they want to. What’s the difference? Journalists have deadlines, and need to satisfy readers and editors, and thus appreciate good pitches. On the other hand, bloggers write about whatever they want to in their own time. Result? While a good, relevant and tailored pitch is likely to interest a journalist, it’ll hardly ever interest a blogger. It might even annoy them, and worse, they could publish your email address on their blog accompanied by a rant about how annoying PR people are.

To entice a blogger you’d need much more time and patience. In short, you’d need to listen and engage in their community i.e. comment on their blog (relevant comments – not “here’s a link to my press release”) and perhaps even have your own blog which taps into and contributes to that same community. Or an alternative would be to seek bloggers’ expertise to enrich your story i.e. involving them, whether by testing your product, completing your experts survey, or whatever. That’s more likely to get them interested than a mere press release. Read my previous post on this for more detail. Or even better, read Brian Solis’ book on blogger relations.

Moving beyond blogger relations, what I think can actually add more value to your communications efforts is the integration piece i.e. how you can use online tools to improve media relations and vice-versa. What could this mean in practice?

You can enrich your press releases: rather than just giving your take on an issue and providing a quote, have a more complete press offering where you have video interviews with stakeholders that you’ve filmed with a basic hand-held camera and uploaded to YouTube, and include hyperlinks to other relavant material.

In addition, you should look more at the “pull factor” i.e. making it easier for the press to receive updates from you automatically rather than simply pushing it to them when they might not even be interested. The standard functionality here is RSS, which is now available on most sites, and allows people to subscribe to updates at the click of their mouse. In future, Twitter is also likely to take off, so journalists can simply choose to receive tweets from PR professionals (and vice versa). To anyone not acquainted with Twitter, it’s a microblogging platform that allows you to issue short entries (140 characters max.) which will automatically be picked up by anyone who “follows” you i.e. who has linked to you on Twitter.

There’s also another element to the “pull factor”. The web empowers individuals and organisations, meaning that they’re less reliant on intermediaries, like say journalists, than ever before to find the content they want. Online, you’re the publisher, so PR and PA people should shift some of their focus from pitching stories to the press to actually making it easier for people to find the story if they actually go looking for it. This first involves producing good quality content that people would want to find, link to, and even spread. Second, you should then bring in a techie who can tell you how to produce content or adapt existing content so that it is optimised for search engines i.e. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), meaning that your content will appear high in Google and other search engines if a user enters a relevant search item. Many people underestimate the importance of SEO. It sounds dull, it’s techy; surely nothing to do with good PR? No, in truth over 90% of sites accessed online are done so via a search engine, so having a high ranking in Google is invaluable. And a lot of it you can do yourself, by using the right keywords and titles in your content.

As for the other side of the coin, using media relations to improve your online content, at the basest level, this can simply involve showcasing news stories other than your own by hyperlinking to them. But you can also take it a step further. This may be a bit unconventional, but why not get the journalists you have an established relationship with to help improve your content via a comments feature? Or even interview them and put a video snippet on your site? I’ve interviewed journalists for a client, and they tend to really appreciate being on the other side for a change, they have a good take on the issues, are effective communicators, and are often well-respected (depending on the publication they work for).

In the near future, I’ll be writing more detailed posts on what a PR/PA professional can do to a) produce more appealing content online; and b) how to lead people to it.