Communications is something on which I coach people – and it may have changed irrevocably during 2016. Let’s look at the evidence.
The standard media training mantra is that you should bridge into your topic, away from others that cause controversy, and make your message known. You don’t criticise the competition, you tread carefully and ensure you’re seen as reasonable. You need good relations with the press.
So far, so sensible. Now let’s examine a few key players in 2016.
Communications get Trumped
We might as well start with the big beast. President-elect Donald Trump has been anything but reasonable. He has not only criticised his opponents, he’s positively libelled them. I would never have advised someone to call Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” or threaten to lock her up, getting crowds to chant along with the suggestion.
That’s what he did, though. And he insulted Mexicans, suggesting they should pay to construct a wall to constrict their own movements, and also he had a go at Muslims, including the family of a fallen soldier.
And he won. I’ve suggested before that what he was doing was offering a story; the comments on that page will tell you all you need to know about whether everyone agreed with me. I stand by my assertion, we’ll come back to it in a second.
Communications and fake news
One of the things that affected the Trump result was the impact of fake news. This is deliberately faked news, like reports that Clinton was in charge of a paedophile ring or something, rather than honest mistakes.
It all added up to an echo chamber in which a change was needed and the agent of change literally couldn’t be the wife of another president.
Fake news and facts also played a part in another major event last year.
Brexit: where’s our £350m a week?
On 23 June last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union. One of the factors in the decision was the deliberate falsehood, that we would save £350m a week and could put it into the National Health Service.
That’s been debunked so often – by the Brexit campaign informally immediately they won and officially in September – that it’s not worth repeating, except to note the sneaky lie the Remainers have brought in on the back of it. See my sub-headline above? “Where’s our £350m a week”, I ask, and many people have said the same thing.
OK, here’s the news: Britain has not yet activated Article 50. It has therefore not started the formal process of leaving the EU. Before the Brexiters had abandoned their pledge, it was dishonest to start calling them out on its non-appearance; even the handful who still believe in it can’t be expected to produce money saved by leaving something before we’ve actually departed.
Both sides of the debate appeared to leave the truth pretty much at the door. Instead, they resorted to “mood music”, as I think of it. There’s a book called “Inbound Marketing” and a great deal of work on the subject besides. The idea is that you create a lot of content so that your client, or voter in the case of the politicians, feels comfortable in your environment. The fact that the rants of Trump and the claims and counterclaims in the Brexit debate don’t adhere to any reality matters less than the tone being right for the supporters.
It’s this sort of tone-setting that I’d identify as the new storytelling. Trump may be an incoherent story teller (I say “may be”…) as people pointed out when I highlighted this as one of his selling points. But he had a compelling tone. This is something businesspeople can learn from.
Which is where I bring in the third piece of evidence to suggest that communications is changing, but maybe not as comprehensively as the previous examples might have indicated.
Communications and Jeremy Corbyn
The leader of the opposition in the UK should never have won the leadership election, never mind winning it twice, according to the old rules. He’s polite but he’ll also snub the press when he’s in that sort of mood – there are many clips like this one, and of course Have I Got News For You has made great fun of his knack of hiding from the cameras, sometimes behind a glass door.
Only…he did win, twice. You can’t get away from it. He is criticised – his supporters say vilified – by the mainstream media (they call it the MSM) – but he’s a serial winner of elections to become party leader. Remember the prime minister hasn’t even faced one such election. Again, his mood music has been about the ordinary person being left behind by large concerns, including the government and including his own party. And if this involves pretending to be on a crowded train when there were plenty of seats, so be it. The message worked and continued the mood for his chosen constituency. On the face of his leadership elections results he’s a resounding success.
So have things changed?
I’m currently working out how to accommodate these factors into my media training offering for 2017. There’s no doubt things have changed and the old rules need refreshing if not complete scrapping.
However, I don’t think all of the changes are permanent. To demonstrate this I point to a couple of incidents over the last couple of days.
Today the Fabian Society said Labour would not be able to win a general election in its own right in 2020. They’re a founding body of the party so they have no reason to be particularly anti. This may be a sign that the mood music isn’t quite enough to change everything in the way that some people believe.
You can argue that they’re known “moderates” or “Blairites” depending on your point of view. OK, but Len McLuskey, seeking re-election as head of the Unite union, has said Corbyn may have to step down if the party still looks unelectable at the beginning of 2019. That’s an uncontentious statement of the obvious at first glance but you have to consider who’s saying it; McLuskey has been a major Corbyn supporter so far. Obviously he’s going to try reaching out to non-supporters during his own re-election campaign but for such a major backer to express doubts (and McLuskey is a seasoned media player) is potentially serious.
So the mood music effect may be slipping, it’s too early to tell. Things have changed, though; I’ll be advising clients this year to set the mood as well as to put set-piece sound bites together, and will continue to advise consistency of communications across all platforms, much as I always have. Meanwhile later this week I’ll consider the importance of the press itself – is it diminishing in the eyes of the readers and viewers?
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