Does media matter?

December 20, 2014

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.
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As if enough hadn’t been said or written already (and I don’t profess to be an expert, by any stretch). An interesting thought nonetheless: why are we Europeans still so enamoured of Obama?

A mix of some of the following perhaps.

To many, he’s still a rockstar

The US and Obama are always big news, but not that big compared to what’s happening here, and the fact is, he’s miles away and can’t by nature have as much impact on our day to day as our own politicians. The freshness and star appeal of 2008 thus hasn’t waned as much as it might have done if we’d seen him dominate the headlines night after night or if we could realistically blame him for our own ills. So as trite and sensationalist as it may seem, as far as we can tell, he still nearly looks and sounds the part – just as he did when he captivated the world back in 2007-08.

If not a rockstar, he’s the sort of American we feel most comfortable with

Right or wrong, we see him as professorial, smart, honest, engaging without being overbearing, seemingly willing to listen rather than act on instinct. This contrasts with the type of American some of us feel slightly uncomfortable with i.e. unashamedly brash, impulsive and unselfconscious.

Values

Despite his relative disinterest in our continent, we still think his values are European in nature: his penchant for soft power, universal healthcare, wanting at least in principle to shut down Guantanamo, gay rights, women’s rights et al. Sure, Guantanamo remains open, the healthcare bill has no public option, the use of drone attacks under his watch has been boosted, his support of gay marriage is a fairly recent development BUT we assume that these are compromise measures, not his personal predilection.

We don’t care about his supposed biggest failure (and in any case it’s not entirely his fault and it seems piffling compared to our mess)

The recovery has been slow and unemployment remains too high? Big deal, that’s their issue, and in any case, the US is doing better than we are; frankly their woes seem piffling compared to the Eurozone travails.

The Republicans partly got us into this mess in the first place

Most of all, the reason many Europeans remain keen on Obama is the other guys. True or not, the 2008 collapse which then led to all sorts of other troubles, none more so than the Eurozone crisis, is blamed on Obama’s predecessor and his party.

The Republicans are creepy

A lot of us still view the Republicans as a sinister lot: virtual pantomime villains; certainly not the responsible party of smaller government and sensible regulation. Rumsfeld’s eerie glare into the camera as he said Old Europe didn’t matter and the subsequent cataclysm that was Iraq still grates. As does – to many – their view on universal healthcare, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation, guns, the death penalty and gay rights, as well as their hawkishness on foreign relations. More than belief, it’s perhaps the tone used by many in the party: the visceral hatred and virtual foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of another opinion on the aforementioned issues makes us feel as tad uncomfortable as this sort of belligerence is usually reserved for extreme fringe parties on this side of the Atlantic. Couple that with many Republicans’ endorsement and continual espousal of their particular notion of American exceptionalism which we would dispute, to put it mildly, and it’s perhaps no wonder that most Europeans – left and right – were pleased with the outcome on November 6th.

Am I forgetting anything?

My colleague from Fleishman-Hillard in Washington DC, Bill Black, was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago to host an event on the use of digital in the US presidential campaign. Good thing that Obama was triumphant, given that the presentation centred on extolling the phenomenal development of the digital element of his campaign since the last election. It’s getting less air-time given that it’s so 2008, but certainly, the campaign’s use of data in particular is truly ground-breaking.

I was asked to round off the presentation with a couple of brief insights on how the principles of the campaign could be applied to Brussels. Slightly tricky given the considerable differences in scale, critical mass, funding and the fact that we had people with drastically different communications needs in the room (political parties through to embassies and perm reps through to corporates).

Nonetheless, there were 3 points in Bill’s presentation which are unquestionably applicable to Brussels, which I summarised as follows:

Using data

Data can also extremely valuable to a Brussels crowd, albeit usually for a different reason. In the US campaign, as with most large campaigns, the prime purpose of mining data is to understand audiences so as to better target them. In Brussels, in most instances, we know our audiences pretty well, or they’re so small that we can find out about them using more cost effective means (a survey or even just asking them directly). However, exploring and breaking down data can pay great dividends in another way, namely building stronger argumentation.

In short, if you represent the interests of an organisation, country, party, region etc. you can use data collected through various means online to understand the views of people in relevant constituencies, and where relevant, align your position so that it reflects these same views, thus strengthening your case significantly. Too often in Brussels, argumentation is based on assumption, or what you’d like people to hear, or it’s too basic to actually matter. In the private sector, how many organisation, for instance, prattle on about the number of people they employ or the percentage of European GDP they account for?

Instead, imagine you’ve used data to determine – hypothetically – that there are 3,000 people in constituency X who have voiced support for you or are likely to support your position, proven through data indicating what these people have said, published, read and shared. I’m sure some people concerned with privacy will shudder, but there’s sure no better argument winner. In addition, analysing a broader set of stakeholders through data can help identify influencers beyond traditional stakeholder groups.

Smarter about content

Old news no doubt but still worth emphasising: with the mass of information being published, being more personal, conversational and publishing material in a variety of attractive, relevant and concise content types is essential if you wish to break through the clutter. This as ever remains a message worth repeating in Brussels, where we remain enthralled by the highly cerebral, overly detailed report or paper as the sole publication type worth thinking about.

Getting senior people involved in social

Again, hardly rocket science, but an interesting insight from the election. The likes of Axelrod were far more involved in social media this time around than in 2008, and this resulted in more stuff being shared and spread. To be frank, although social media lowers the barrier to entry to communications, often allowing people who are smart and interesting yet not high in the food chain to gain an audience, the fact remains that high-profile people usually carry more immediate clout when engaged in communications. This is a valuable lesson to the organisations in Brussels, both public and private, who farm off social media to the intern or even a 3rd party, when ideally, the figureheads of an organisation should at least be somewhat involved.