Politics After the Gazette, Part IV

This post concludes this week’s series by Adam Pagnucco:

For politicians, operatives, advocates and basically everyone seeking to get out a message, the new era without abundant mainstream media has both good news and bad news.  Let’s start with the latter.

The Bad News: You have to work a lot harder to get your message out and be noticed.

For those of you who long for the days when legions of press would show up to hear about your new office furniture, those days are forever gone.  Consider one of the most infamous figures in recent Montgomery County political history: Ruthann Aron.  The trials of this former politician and planning board member who was accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband transfixed the County in the late 1990s.  Recently, Aron called a press conference to trot out her new book in which she alleges betrayal by her defense lawyer.  Only one reporter from Bethesda Magazine showed up.  Horrified, Aron squealed, “Where’s the Associated Press, where’s The Washington Post?”

There are 188 members of the General Assembly and many more city, county and municipal elected officials in Maryland.  In its current shriveled condition, the mainstream media might have fewer than a dozen reporters who regularly cover government and politics in the entire state.  There simply aren’t enough reporters to go around.  Unless they are doing something extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, elected officials below the statewide or executive levels are unlikely to get much attention from the mainstream press unless they work hard to get it.

The Good News: You have more control over the content of your message and who receives it.

For those elected officials, operatives and candidates who are prepared for the new world, the absence of mainstream media is not so much a problem as it is an opportunity.  An unprecedented number of tools are now available for direct communication with the public: email, Twitter, Facebook, blogging and digital ads, to name a few.  Many of these tools can be targeted to very specific audiences.  None of this was possible fifteen years ago when politicians had to rely on newspaper reporters to get out news about their activities.

The gatekeepers to the public are almost gone.  In a way, it has never been a better time to be a politician.

The key to truly excelling in this new environment is to understand how the remnants of the old regime and the tools of the new world interact.  The old regime was top-down: politicians and the press at the top sending news down to the public at the bottom.  The new system is more organic, interrelated and even amoebic in form.  Everything affects everything else.  There is little structure.  Unpredictability is the rule.  What used to be big might have little impact now.  What used to be small can become big VERY quickly.

Consider the following alternative scenarios for how information can flow in this new world.

  1. An article about Politician A and an issue he is working on shows up on Bethesda Magazine’s website. It circulates on Facebook and Twitter.  Politician A blast emails it and gets an advocacy group to do the same, which gets the attention of the reporter.  This generates a follow-up in Bethesda Magazine.  A gets a two-fer.
  1. Politician B is working on another issue but can’t get any reporters to pay attention to it. So B takes out a Facebook ad on the issue and gets hundreds of likes and dozens of supportive comments.  A blogger also covers it and B tweets and reposts it.  B goes back to the reporters and says, “See?  It’s hot!”  Stories are written and reposted on Facebook with more ads to beef them up.  Now the issue is starting to move – and so is B.
  1. Advocacy Group X is all over Issue Z, starting up an online petition and Facebook page to push it. Politician C finds out and gets on board.  Boom – Group X lets their supporters know that C is their hero, and C gets both supportive Facebook posts and good press.  Other politicians get jealous and jump in to grab pieces of the pie.
  1. A group of politicians decides to team up against a common rival. The rival has a larger social media presence and official communications staff than any one of them.  But the group has regional diversity, many Twitter and Facebook followers between them, several blast email lists and a willingness to coordinate.  Each of them puts up social media posts that take on the common enemy.  The rest of the group then retweets and reposts, rotating between lead and supporting roles.  Coordinated blast emails carrying the content go out.  The group members take turns buying Facebook ads and digital ads promoting their statements.  Particular issues get hashtags.  Helpful activists, party sites and other groups pitch in and spread the messages even further.  The official media picks up on it and spotlights the campaign, amplifying it further.  Soon enough, the T-Rex is surrounded by velociraptors and the pack closes in.

Dealing with reporters is still necessary since they haven’t (yet) entirely disappeared.  But success in the new era depends on integrating the old tools with the new, amplifying the effects of both and building communication scale.  Those who master these arts will inherit the new world.  Those who don’t will fade away with the old, just like the ill-fated T-Rex above.