Febrile and Vituperative, The New Media Normal

In his parting words as Prime Minster Tony Abbott bemoaned the febrile nature of the modern media and the culture of character assassination that he believed contributed to his downfall.

Whilst he may be correct in that assessment he failed to acknowledge that he benefitted and exploited that media environment during his rise to the top. He can hardly have expected an immediate return to a more benign media climate once he attained the Prime Ministership.

Much has been written and said about Abbott’s tactical and strategic mistakes but his parting comment perhaps points to the most basic of miscalculations. That it would be possible to put the Genie of old, new and social media back in the bottle.

In the fractured modern news media all players are engaged in a constant battle for existence. If they don’t lead with stories, have a particular spin for a target audience, or find some other way to garner a sustainable following, be they on-line, print, onscreen or on-air, they will perish. The barrier to entry is no longer the need to buy a printing press or a gain a broadcast licence. A laptop with WiFi will do the job.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that there’s a feverish rush to get ‘news’, whatever the definition, out there.

Then add unfiltered social media commentary into the mix, remembering that it requires no rules of attribution, accuracy, balance or even logic. The result is a boiling soup of sensational headlines, thirst for conflict, rush to publish and blurred lines between reporting and commentary mixed with personal abuse, ill-formed and often offensive views, instant experts and transient superficiality.

That is the new normal of modern media. For politicians and business alike failing to recognise it and find a way to deal with it is a guarantee of trouble.

Commenting on the Turnbull ascendancy Victoria Liberal Party President Michael Kroger claimed it was essentially about modern politicians needing to be good communicators. True enough but, in the media firmament outlined above, message delivery alone won’t do the job. The performance needs to be believable and engaging.

Any marketer knows that if you can get the audience emotionally invested, so long as you then provide the basic framework of believable information, they will do the post-purchase rationalisation for you. When it comes to judging other people (which is essentially what modern politics has become) we all make the emotional part of that decision in seconds. So if the personality and performance do not connect we probably won’t even get to the message.

Unlikeable politicians, no matter how logical and well meaning, just won’t cut it anymore. Sad but true, because there have been some great leaders in the past who were not really the kind of folk you would want to spend time with.

American political commentator and former Clinton advisor Paul Begala famously said “Politics is showbiz for ugly people.” Well, not too ugly either.

The media environment will not suddenly become kinder, gentler and more principled. Consequently if you are a modern politician who can’t put on a believable performance to deliver an acceptable message, you had better stay on the backbenches until your pension is due.

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