With the aroma of fresh brewed coffee wafting through the early morning air, more than 40 Public Relations practitioners settled-in to explore the astonishing rate at which the political PR landscape is changing due to the explosion of digital media.
What can we learn, as communicators, from current political campaigns and elections, and the shifting norms in politics today?
This was the question that opened up discussion at a March 30th CPRS Vancouver professional learning event titled ‘Shifting norms in politics and PR – PR is more important than ever before’. Public Relations consultant and founder of Ask the Todd Communications, Todd Hauptman, sat down with four PR experts for a panel discussion about changes happening in politics and PR. The four panelists – Dan Burritt, Reporter and Weekend TV News Anchor at CBC Vancouver; Lesli Boldt, President of Boldt Communications Inc.; Kyle Braid, Senior VP of Ipsos Reid; and John Manning, Principal and Owner of Proximis Digital – tackled issues such as alternative facts, fake news, and social media.
Dan Burritt opened the discussion by noting that in addition to receiving hundreds of emails with pitch notes, CBC also now receives news tips via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and through comments posted at the bottom of online news stories. Media outlets are getting more information and pitches than ever before due to the ease and directness of digital communication tools. However, the basics remain the same to garner journalist attention: keep the message clear and concise. While television and radio were dominant in the past, online is now the go-to way to disseminate and receive information.
Lesli Boldt then provided the example of her first election campaign in 1993 when press releases were sent by fax. Communications and politics have changed an enormous amount in just 20 years.
“As communicators, we have to be way more agile than we used to be. We have to be generalists and understand the full marketing and communications range and deploy all the different tactics in combination and to support one another. We have to take courses to understand new media that we are not familiar with: Google Ads, SEO and other tools that all come together during a campaign period,” said Boldt.
John Manning highlighted two trends. First, that Facebook’s enormity is significant and their algorithms have created an echo chamber that is polarizing, pushing people’s political views to either the far left or far right. Second, that there is a market failure for high quality news, which is critical to democracy and society. Now that everybody can be a media publisher, whether the information is high quality or not, it can get clicks.
Kyle Braid discussed the obsession in the PR world with social media and technology; people think they need to react and need to be on the cutting edge of all the new tools.
“Just because something is new and cool, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily important. Even Twitter. If you really look who is using Twitter for politics, it’s journalists, pundits, people who are in the game, and it is real citizens who are going on there to confirm their own opinions. Twitter is not a tool for persuasion; it’s a tool for the dissemination of the information,” he said.
The lesson is to research who the specific audiences are for each of these tools and how these audiences are using the tools.
The panel then moved on to discuss creating narrative via digital media, managing fake news, and effectively executing PR campaigns in the fast-paced social media world.
“If you find a way to make your message personal and local, it resonates,” said Manning, describing how even social media tools like Facebook can be powerful PR messaging mediums.
“It is also important to know that people do not take facts at their value anymore,” he added. The audience is largely skeptical about the information that comes through their social media channels, so if a communicator can tell a story with information that can be personally verified by someone it will make the narrative stronger. Communicators have to go back to the fundamentals of communicating because people are less willing to accept a message they cannot personally verify.
“Despite people’s skepticism of information appearing on their social media feeds, fake news is prevalent. While fake news has always existed, PR practitioners now have to respond a lot quicker,” explained Boldt.
“In the past you had more time because you didn’t have Twitter amplification and things moving out of control so quickly. You have to respond a lot quicker now and build credibility and integrity with journalists you are working with – this way they will be more confident in the information you are sharing. It is more important than ever before to develop relationships with journalists who you trust and who can trust you,” she said.
“Social media also enables people to cherry pick the information that already fits into their narrative,” said Burritt. Braid expanded on this thought, noting that Facebook is a primary source of information for people now and that while they have access to a lot of information, they skim things that interest them and bypass things that do not, and as a result, the level of knowledge is extremely thin.
“In today’s social media dependent world, it is important for professional communicators to understand social media channels,” said Manning.
“What is it about Instagram that get people on it?” asked John. “Everyone has to understand why people Snapchat, why people publish on Instagram, what is going on with Facebook. The amount of time we put into training ourselves has to go up. Communicators also need to know that Facebook is a news aggregator, not a news source.”
For the 40 people in attendance, the panel discussion revealed the challenges and opportunities inherent in an era where primary sources of news are social media channels and where fake news has a fertile place to grow.
The ‘Shifting norms in politics and PR – PR is more important than everbefore’ presentation was hosted by CPRS Vancouver and organized by CPRS director of speaker series, Amy Hennessy, with the help of volunteers, Olga Sergienko and Klaudia Budniak.