media musings – June 2020

reason versus passion – a guide to keeping the faith when it seems like all around you are losing theirs

How do I approach writing a blog on my thoughts on the media landscape this month? Do I keep things rational, reasoned and objective… boring, one might say… and lose readers and impact? Or do I say something controversial, maybe even provocative, and hope it bumps up my viewing figures for good or ill?

It’s a tricky one. Credibility or visibility? Well… both, hopefully.

That’s a debate which I suspect goes on regularly in the minds of our mainstream media executives, even if they won’t admit it. How does a news outlet tackle a contentious public issue? Should they deal with it in a calm, rational manner – stiff upper lip, and all that – or sensationalise things, hype things up a bit?

Of course people react more to controversy, and unfortunately the funding of all press outlets depend on viewing figures, readership numbers, audience sizes… so invariably it’s the latter approach which wins. And I think it’s a problem, especially at a time of crisis where the national interest and unity should be our number one priority.

This week I heard the genuinely astounding – and unanswered – words coming out of the mouth of an interviewee on one of our mainstream press channels. “It’s not about facts and figures,” they said. “It’s about feelings.”

It’s worth pausing and reflecting on this. Is the voice of reason in national debate now redundant?

It seems to me that, as the media landscape changes and as the internet throws up new press channels which, lumped together, constitute an enormous threat to the established status quo, the ensuing scrabble for audience share has heightened the focus on hyperbole, passion… even tears, if the journalist can get them. “You got them to cry! Let’s splash it… ker-ching!”

But going back to one of my previous posts – regarding my journey from doubt-riddled miserabilist to confident owner of a successful PR agency – the defining feature of my personal enlightenment (pinch of salt here, please), has been the ability to master my emotions, to recognise that they’re mine alone, to understand that the solution comes from within. That’s an age-old philosophy and one which I’ve only recently come to terms with.

My experience has taught me that it’s fine to express your passions but, in reality, it’s probably true to say that not that many people really care about your emotions. People certainly won’t look to do business with them. It’s what you do that counts.

And besides, our emotions are all so disparate and unique, how do we achieve anything by trying to build a consensus around them? Surely uniting around a coherent, rational, sensible set of values is the way to progress towards something better. The alternative is that we all just spin around like badly let off fireworks.. it’s mayhem.

So by that rationale does the short-termist obsession with views, listeners, clicks and shares, really matter more than helping propagate a world where rational argument, sensible thought and objectivity presides? Has reason lost its value? I don’t think so.

My cousin Nick, a pioneer in holistic physiotherapy based at his start-up business The Good Physio in Exeter, is an expert on the link between psychological and physical pain, the understanding that mental stress and chronic pain are inextricably linked, that if you can manage your mental processes it will have an impact on your physical health. And vice versa, too. Anyone who has ever felt stress literally draining out of their mind as they start running round their local park after a horrible day’s work, will understand exactly what he means. Clarity, calm… that’s where the good things happen.

Isn’t that important? That a potential resolution for your issues are either: have a rant, be angry, blame someone else… short-term gain but probably long-term pain; or, take a walk, step back from your issues and find a lasting solution in the process. It’s a no brainer, surely.

I’m talking figuratively, as well as literally here. Because this stuff applies to our media, too.

Wouldn’t a bit of calm, some feel-good positivity be nice in the news occasionally? Surely that’s the way for us to achieve unity of purpose and direction on a range of issues – social, economic, political – through reasoned discussion about the topics in question to find a sensible way forward?

Unfortunately the media tend to cause more problems than they solve in this regard. It’s all so negative, combative, point-scoring. They’d argue that it’s their job to do so provoke debate, but I think they also have different, wider responsibilities. What’s becoming more apparent to me daily – maybe I’m getting old, or maybe I was naive before – is that each outlet’s number one interest is its own survival and that the news agenda is made to fit. That’s just about acceptable for a commercial organisation but for publicly-funded outlets in particular, it’s not good enough.

A few months ago there arose an interesting episode with a client of ours. On behalf of AR Demolition – an innovative contractor based in the East Midlands – we put out a press release offering an alternative to the practice of using scaffolding on some demolition jobs, following a worrying spate of collapses. Richard Dolman, the MD of the company, proposed a better solution, using new inventions to improve safety and reduce risk.

It caused no end of a rumpus. Demolition contractors with side companies in scaffolding were (unsurprisingly) up in arms, the industry body distanced itself from the comments, powerful voices came out in criticism.

But Richard was right, of course. Innovation and technology are the key to improved safety in the construction sector. And on alongside the self-interested critics of Richard’s views was a chorus of support – notably from sector press editors, to be fair – people saying ‘thank you’, ‘about time’, that sort of thing.

The point is that the highly vocal minority here were not actually the ones who we were targeting. Just because they shouted the loudest – outrage driven in reality by self-defensive emotion, one suspects – it didn’t make the message invalid, or negate the benefit of the press coverage (multiple pieces, by the way, in true Turn the Tables style…).

And of course, for a disruptive contractor looking to turn the tables in his industry, who really cares what the rest of competition think? It was building companies, construction firms, local authorities… the type of people issuing tenders, not the ones competing for them, whose opinions really counted. And they’ll certainly have recognised the benefits of working with a contractor which espouses progressive, sensible values.

This is worth remembering, for anyone looking at PR as a marketing tool. The noise – and there’s a lot of it – often isn’t where the real business action is. Decisions which are crucial to the success of your business are made far away from the superficial confines of social media. Pick your battles wisely, of course – there’s no sense in blundering into conflict in a tedious echo chamber where you have no chance of victory (I like the analogy of Neo being overwhelmed and smothered by Agent Smith clones in the Matrix Reloaded. “More…”).

But also recognise that, just because you might not see instant evidence of it, you can always trust that your message is getting through to those with whom it counts. Dominic Raab will no doubt take a media pasting for comparing the BLM genuflection to a Game of Thrones trope, but all that matters to his party is that a large and significant swathe of his electorate will applaud his stance. The reason that they say ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is because, assuming you’re not saying something unutterably unreasonable (and why would you?), your message will register with the decision-makers who matter. Meanwhile the serial objectors, who you’re never going to win over, simply make a noise… and move on.

And quietly, but confidently, your business will get where it wants to be.

by Rupert Janisch