A couple of years ago I enjoyed a twitter-spat of sorts with my friend Robert Phillips, ably supported by my friend and erstwhile issues management consultant and vicar George Pitcher in this blog-blag (I think I just made up that one), following the publication of Robert’s crowdfunded tome “Trust Me, PR is Dead!”
As one of the crowdfunders, I then enjoyed taking issue with the central premise of Robert’s work which is along the lines that public relations has a higher social purpose than feeding messages to audiences. Obviously I lost the argument as Robert and George are gurus of PR and I’m an old-fashioned rabble-rouser who enjoys poking pointed sticks in eyes.
Our debate back then came to mind today when observing the Trump victory in the US. Like the Brexit result back in June in the UK, it is de rigeur to describe both as the triumph of the ‘will of the people.’ In both cases significant numbers of people who have no track record of voting at all, let alone for one political clan or another, were motivated to go to the polls. To an extent this is also true of the surge in UK Labour Party membership created by the Momentum Movement, although in the latter case it has been more a case of engaging a new generation of voters, not only reconnecting with an older and lost one.
The Rev’d Pitcher reminded me during our earlier discourse that we’ve come on a long way since Marshall Mcluchan’s “The medium is the Message,” or was it the message is the medium?
Either way, George was right to say that in the decades since that dictum communications has become a lot more about the conversation with people than the message propelled at them. PR is by definition about relationships with publics, it is and always has been, even in Mcluchan’s day, about earning trust.
My first lessons in PR were at the feet of Al Golin, and his pupils, who invented the concept of “The Trust Bank.” Al developed this concept for his first client McDonald’s, back in the 1950s, so the idea that great PR was about trust was hardly new. Nevertheless Robert Phillips definitely took the debate to a new and more contemporary level. But as Harold Wilson said in the 1970s, “A week is a long time in politics.” In 2016 a few minutes is a long time in politics and PR.
For me, the two takeouts from the Trump/Brexit/Momentum experience has been to review my acquaintance with a past era’s focus on medium and the message.
The first thought concerns the medium. In all three examples, new communications ground has been broken with the spectacularly successful use of new media, most particularly social media.
These platforms have facilitated engagement with and the re-engagement of lost or never found audiences. User generated content has turned the traditional media news agenda on its head as ‘the people’ create their own news. Platforms such as Twitter have been key in building up reinforcement mechanisms, convincing people who love to inhabit echo chambers that they are not alone.
The second thought concerned the message. Twitter and Facebook have been instrumental in fanning prejudice, always and still, the most powerful element of communication. In a sense the propaganda of the age of Edward Bernays, the father of PR has been rediscovered as un-edited, non-fact checked content explodes across the internet unfettered by Robert Phillips’ concern for ethics in PR.
Liberally-minded, middle of the road, thinkers, commentators and practitioners who dwell in the world of the reasonable, fair and ethical are aghast at the plethora of “lies” and deceits. They hold their hands up in horror as suggestive slogans on printed on buses turn the heads of the masses. They tut-tut in knowingly cerebral ways as Trump calls for walls to be built and swamps to be drained. They dismiss the growth of quite shallow but very pervasive ‘clicktivism’ as the wing flapping of a butterfly-minded generation.
They miss the point. People are migrate to the medium, and are moved by the message. People like simple solutions thrown at complex problems. People hate to be told so and so cannot be done buy others who think they know, and probably do know, better.
Trump, Brexit and Momentum are all great examples of doing precisely the opposite. They have used the medium and focused on the message. They have facilitated the connection of one with the other through astute construction of new public conversations, conversations which have built trust.
Trust in the message earned through the creation, or re-creation, of new communities of interest – communities built on mutually shared prejudices.
As with most subjects, there can be no right or wrong answer to questions put about communication generally, and communication in politics particularly, but it’s more a case of new thoughts being built upon old ones. This maybe the new age for medium and for message, not for one being the other, but for one facilitating the other through conversations and communities.