Anthony Weiner’s official Congressional portrait. Photo courtesy of United States Congress.
A world leader today is his own publicist. Every word, every move and misstep is released almost instantaneously as it is sent, forcing public figures to be accordingly responsible for their actions. This new duty comes with the advancement of social media (and subsequent digression of traditional press), which, though all-encapsulating, can become a great asset in both crisis management and personally connecting with constituents. Not only celebrity heavyweights like Ashton Kutcher and Kanye West are taking advantage of Twitter and Facebook, but more recently, President Obama has been tweeting. One might argue this negates the pedestal we hold public leaders on on in our minds, but most can identify the definite perks in being down with the crowd.
Brad Phillips, President of Phillips Media Training and Author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, has witnessed both sides of the coin toss, describing the overall impact as being a “huge boom in terms of reaching an audience.”
Phillips, whose clients include the Environmental Protection Agency, Hilton Hotels, Action Without Borders, the U.S. Department of Energy and former Congressional members, points to the immediacy of ideas as the most drastic change in the evolution of public attention.
“Ten years ago, politicians were very limited in means of reaching their potential voters,” he explains. “You either had to go through the mainstream media, or you’d have to pay for a television ad, or even through direct mail. Today, you can reach voters in five seconds.”
As further evidence to the nouveau approach to politics and fame, Phillips recalls the most recent State of the Union address, where members of Congress were actually tweeting during the President’s speech. Gone now is the wall between stage and seat—a door has opened, letting us hear everything straight from the horse’s mouth. Press releases, candidacy announcements, apologies and praises are all curated by big-listers, meanwhile the publicist becomes less and less involved in the traffic.
A quick examination of various forms of contemporary media offers bountiful insight on communication channels. For most of time, news traveled by word of mouth and via snail mail. The gossip chain from one town to the next moved as quickly as wagon wheels rolled, and newspapers eventually were established as the main source of storytelling. When war broke out, when Watergate was revealed, when presidents took the oath of office, the public turned to fine print, and eventually TV and radio, to hear the recount. They were limited by what the press scrutinized and objectified, only given as many minutiae as their chosen informant allowed.
Now, anything goes – good, bad, or, in the case of those like Anthony Weiner, really disturbing.
“With former PR strategies, you put together a press release to respond to crises, but now there’s a demand for quick response so you lose that filter to strategize,” notes Phillips, who typically advises his clients to follow the one failsafe rule he knows—don’t say anything in public you wouldn’t want repeated. “Even if you’re merely having a private dinner with a friend, or working on your laptop on a plane…with the click of a camera, anything can get out very fast.”
The former 24-hour turnover time frame has been reduced to seconds, putting all public figures at high risk for being unconsciously evaluated and portrayed by undisclosed and watchful eyes. Even internal meetings can be leaked by less-than-admiring direct reports.
“It seems counterintuitive, but I think the best way to maintain any sort of privacy is to be the one putting out info before the press,” says Phillips. “If a public figure can control his own life before the media, he becomes the source…Otherwise, there’s really no way of halting exposure.”
As Phillips also points out, no matter what century we live in, scandal always buys the most attention. So information the public may be searching for in the sphere of social media often conflicts with what leaders are hoping to underscore. Where world leaders must focus on a message, social media enables them to have a say over how that message is relayed across the spans of the globe. Thus, in order to keep interest directed appropriately, Phillips instructs his clients on the task of crafting compelling ‘stories’ to capitalize on their memoranda—how to incorporate data and statistics, how to make people care.
“It’s not just about having a message anymore, it’s about how to tell it,” he adds, pointing to the ever-controversial Sarah Palin as prime example of stealing limelight from the media. “Love her or hate her, she’s become the master of manipulating the media with her Facebook posts…Every political journalist follows her, and she makes all important announcements on her own, through her sites. This never would have happened five or ten years ago.”
In the past, it was all about the podium, the curtains and the shuffling of journalists into a room. A press secretary would read updates from his notebook while millions watched on television from their couches. Now, every minute holds the blast of a new vision from those who lead us, brought instantly to our phones, iPads, and computers. We expect it, and we demand it.