The British General Election barely registers on the street. It’s the mainstream media which is writing the narrative, creating overnight superstars, capturing the public’s attention, and driving opinion polls in all directions. What’s to learn?
When the election started David Cameron’s Tories looked like they were cruising to some sort of nuanced victory. The first televised leaders’ debate put paid even to that. The Liberal Democrats jumped from a distant third to being front runner or in close second place, depending on which poll you trust. So-called Cleggmania was born. Now some sort of humiliation looks much more likely than it did, even if Cameron becomes PM.
Of course, the leaders’ debate is game-show politics, which makes it even more prone to febrile moodiness than EU or local elections. I agree with my friend Richard D North’s view (expressed on his blog and in his book on Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics) that we may well be watching the end of 20th Century class politics. Why wouldn’t it get weird? But interestingly, the running is still being made by ordinary newspapers and broadcasters. Who said TV was dying or that dead tree press is dead? One wonders how Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis explain such events.
Once upon a time, political parties had a mass base, with mass membership, rooted in trade unions, social classes and local constituencies. Not any more. Today the political elite is remote and connects to the masses via the media. The contest for votes is fought on TV and in the tabloids and broadsheets, sometimes in the style of the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol. Modern elections are always more about style than content, but I don’t think the real intentions of the major parties were ever more obscure to us than they are today.
Supposedly we live in an age of engagement, in an age in which we form interactive online social networks based on common values. But that doesn’t fit well with the British election experience. Social media – Twitter, Facebook and blogs – are just a backdrop to this story. Charlie Beckett summed up the TV-impact well:
…the curious voter can watch the debates and form their own judgements on the basis of what the candidates say and how they perform.This kind of ‘disintermediated’ communication is usually thought of as an Internet phenomenon. But as Michael Cockerill’s excellent documentary on the history of TV debates reminded us – mainstream broadcast media can do it, too, albeit without interactivity.
Moreover, the political party with by far the largest web-based social presence, with the most interactive website, has the least influence of all on public opinion. The British National Party is a joke (though it might win a seat; we’ll see). But according to the web-rankings agency Alexa the BNP is the world’s 28,545 most popular site compared to the Conservatives at 52,423, Lib Dems at 68,446, Labour at 69,527 and political blogging sensation Guido Fawkes at 40,688.
There’s lessons here for firms. Old media still counts for much more than new media. However new media and old media interconnect so both need to be engaged. But it’s largely a myth that the online networked society changes the rules of PR and communication in general. By the way, I shall deal with the advocates of the Stockholm Accords’ misreading of contemporary developments (they think we live in a new value-network society) at a later date. For now I merely remark that in many ways they miss the obvious: the emergence of new media, and the fragmentation it encourages, makes old media more important than ever, even as their audience shrinks, precisely because the mass public is increasingly disengaged from public life.