Bypassing Media and Speaking Straight to the People: Crime or Evolution?

“I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” —December 11, 1936, King Edward VIII abdicates the Crown of the British Monarchy in an address directly to the British people and to the world.

Opening knee-jerk alert: this is not a political blog post, although the topic will be rooted in politicians and I will be mentioning President Trump, former Presidents Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill and, even, as quoted, a former king of England.

Hopefully I have piqued your interest…if not, I’m sorry. But better to bail now and forego the disappointment of nothing controversial, nothing “anti” or “pro.” Instead, I hope to focus on food for thought for both marketers and pundits alike as well as for myself.

President Trump’s relationship with the media might be bumpy at best, but, frankly, if analyzed from a dispassionate point of view, it is incredibly symbiotic. Neither side can resist the opportunity to take pot shots at the other, from the size of crowds to the designers of clothing, and the seesaw effect of the back and forth drives engagement on all sides of the issues.

Yet it appears that with all the obvious issues the president could be questioned about, the Twitter controversy has become an obsession. Trump—once candidate, now president—has somehow bypassed the traditional, dispassionate, truth-to-power establishment and has taken his message–truthful or not–directly to the masses.

Being the first U.S. president to have so callously and calculatingly bypassed the “accepted” national and international filter of news and information is a clear part of Trump’s hubris, ego and disdain.

Robert B. Reich, the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration, posted a piece in December of last year, titled “Trump’s Seven Techniques to Control the Media”.

I leave it to you to read the first six techniques, as I will comment only on the seventh:

7. Bypass the media and communicate with the public directly. The American public learns what Trump thinks through his tweets. Shortly after the election, Trump released a video message outlining some of the executive actions he plans to take on his first day in office.

Aides say Trump has also expressed interest in continuing to hold the large rallies that became a staple of his candidacy. They say he likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide.

The word “media” comes from “intermediate” between newsmakers and the public. Responsible media hold the powerful accountable by asking them hard questions and reporting on what they do. Apparently Trump wants to eliminate such intermediaries.

Clearly then “eliminating the intermediaries” is insidious and smacks of totalitarian control.

Except that in February 2010, U.S. News & World Report published a piece titled “5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics”:

Politicians have long sought to go around the mainstream press filter—from fireside chats, to whistlestop tours, to snail-mail newsletters—but the new media take it a step further by even more directly connecting them with voters. And the technology is moving quickly. Last fall, a Conservative Talking Points iPhone app came out; a few days ago the White House unveiled its new iPhone app, with live-streaming video of presidential events. Who knows what’s next?

And only a few years’ later, in August of 2012, Pew weighed in:

If presidential campaigns are in part contests over which candidate masters changing communications technology, Barack Obama on the eve of the conventions holds a substantial lead over challenger Mitt Romney.

A new study of how the campaigns are using digital tools to talk directly with voters-bypassing the filter of traditional media-finds that the Obama campaign posted nearly four times as much content as the Romney campaign and was active on nearly twice as many platforms. Obama’s digital content also engendered more response from the public-twice the number of shares, views and comments of his posts.

And in documenting the changes between 2008 and 2012, Pew reported:

The changes from 2008 go beyond the candidates adding social media channels. The Obama campaign has also localized its digital messaging significantly, adding state-by-state content pages filled with local information. It has also largely eliminated a role for the mainstream press. Four years ago the Obama campaign used press clips to validate his candidacy. The website no longer features a “news” section with recent media reports. Now the only news of the day comes directly from the Obama campaign itself. (In the recent redesign, the Obama campaign also highlighted its “Truth Team” section which includes its criticism of the Romney economic plan as well as their accounting of Obama’s initiatives-also as determined by the Obama campaign.)

The Romney website, by contrast, contains a page dedicated to accounts about the candidate from the mainstream news media, albeit only those speaking positively of Romney or negatively of Obama.

Could 2016 be a page from an earlier and very successful playbook?

Yet, this is all DIGIBABBLE justification.

Those in, or looking for, political power have been going directly to the people since…I imagine they figured out that they could change the influence filter.

Shakespeare imagines the precursor of our digital social medium­—the steps of the Senate in Rome as Brutus addresses the angry citizens of the city:

I suspect that Brutus would have fallen into Chancellor Reich’s 7th technique of control, as no doubt Winston Churchill would have as well (he made his first address to the people of Britain as Prime Minister over the radio in his famous speech “Be Ye Men of Valour”), not to mention US President Harry Truman who used the back of railroad trains as his primary platform during his “whistlestop” tour across the United States, because he couldn’t get media coverage.

And President John F. Kennedy, a master at media control and the face of the new power of television, was honest enough to have posited:

Television swept the nation during the 1950s, with the number of sets increasing from one million in 1949 to fifty million ten years later… Although Senator John F. Kennedy warned in 1959 that television could be “abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance,” he believed that television’s “net effect can definitely be for the better.” He contended that the new medium gave the public a new opportunity to detect for themselves deception and honesty in a politician’s image.

But honestly? They were all amateurs by comparison to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From TIME magazine:

These fireside chats were not literally delivered by the fireside. As TIME noted in 1937, they were broadcast from the White House Diplomatic Room, which has no fireplace. But the speeches, which ran anywhere from 11 minutes to more than 40 — depending on the speech itself and the number of “persuasive pauses,” per TIME — gave Roosevelt a chance to explain and defend his New Deal policies. They were known for their comforting effect on an uneasy populace, as much during the Depression as they later were during World War II.

While future presidents followed FDR’s lead, using the technology of their times (Obama broadcasts his own addresses via YouTube and has reached out to millennials on Reddit, Instagram and Twitter), it would be difficult to name anyone who did it better than Roosevelt. After this first chat, he was inundated with fan mail from listeners who felt they now knew him intimately. Herbert Hoover had averaged 5,000 letters a week; FDR got 50,000, according to “FDR’s First 100 Days,” a publication by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

…Sixty million people listened to Roosevelt’s first radio address; the next day, per the Roosevelt Library, “newspapers around the country reported long lines of people waiting to put their money back into the banks. The immediate crisis had passed.”

One can only imagine and speculate how he might have used todays tools—my view? He would have been the master.

Is this, then, the question? From Politico Magazine:

Ever since the so-called Facebook election of 2008, Obama has been a pacesetter in using social media to connect with the public. But he has nothing on this year’s field of candidates. Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts “Snapchat Stories” at stops along the trail. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush spar over student debt on Twitter. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos. Even grumpy old Bernie Sanders has attracted nearly two million likers on Facebook, leading the New York Times to dub him “a king of social media.”

Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a firebrand. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.

In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies back, at least in two dimensions. With its jumpy cuts and pitiless close-ups, TV placed a stress on sound bites, good teeth and an easy manner. Image became everything, as the line between politician and celebrity blurred. John Kennedy was the first successful candidate of the TV era, but it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they could project a down-home demeanor while also seeming bigger than life.

What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.

Is there really a difference? People harness the channels of the day and evolve themselves and their messages to fit.

To me the real issue and the bigger question has just been framed by Gillian Tett of the Financial Times this past January 20. She writes:

The Democrat Roosevelt wanted to find a way to talk to voters without relying on local papers, which were largely Republican…The tactic worked so well that when Roosevelt was later installed as president in 1933, he became the first incumbent of the White House to conduct so-called “fireside chats” on the radio. Newspaper journalists frowned—but, eventually, they started reporting on those radio shows until this became entirely normal.

Sound familiar?

As I have written before, the irony of all of this is that the megaphone effect of the “lying media” is what makes President Trump’s tweets viable communications vehicles. The scramble to report them and lead with their message puts them on the map of the public’s mind—not the Tweets themselves—and there is the conundrum of our age.

Gillian Tett continues:

As the debate rumbles on, the one thing that is clear is that media outlets face a difficult choice: should journalists report all of Trump’s tweets (and risk looking as if they’re acting as his megaphone)? Or should they ignore them (and risk missing stories that move markets)? Or should they try instead to add context and fact checking (and risk being accused of mixing reporting and comment)?

I will say this: Winston Churchill understood the exponential effect of modern communications both on distribution and credibility. Listen, a quote attributed to both Winston Churchill, Mark Twain or neither:

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

My sense is that today he would say it completes two orbits…at least.

Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, understand that the real argument is truth, not technology.

What do you think?

 

 

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