As a “starry-eyed” (and talking in my mind’s eye here) college grad more than 20 years ago, I landed my first real job at the Democratic National Committee, where I worked in communications. There I Iearned how to frame issues important to the party. When I wrote what I thought were incredible moving talking points about everything Democrats did to help the poor I was quickly told never to use the term “poor” to describe the economically disadvantaged. Democrats champion the middle class and “working poor,” not “poor people.”
I also learned how to cement and manage the images of the politicians, helping them to successfully navigate interviews with journalists and other members of the media. My seasoned colleagues taught me the fundamentals of the biz. For fielding questions from the media, answer, transition and message was the script, and it went like this: A reporter would ask you a question, you would answer the question in part by transitioning to one of your key messaging platform points, and then you would deliver your message.
Social Media Is the New Talk Radio
When I transitioned to working in tech PR in the late ‘90s the players were different but the rules remained the same. Many times the truth was something to be managed and messaged. When bad news hit you worked quickly but carefully to craft a response that would control the damage to your public image.
By a certain age you recognize that everything old becomes new again. The rise of talk radio— what I think of as social media’s predecessor—in the ‘90s created a hunger for authenticity. Social media and other technological advances affecting media have brought back honesty as the best policy. Like talk radio, social media is immediate, happens in real time, and features a certain amount of intimacy not found in other media. National-level politicians found talk radio to be a tough forum in which to talk about national issues because callers would call in to complain about trash collection or to lodge other local gripes. As a medium, it was much harder to control than a TV interview because the crowd or vocal minority really dictated the conversation. To answer their questions, you couldn’t recite policy points—you needed to be real.
The same is true today. Transparency, honesty, authenticity and accountability are the new (old) values driving smart public relations, and they need to be in play 24-7. Members of your target audience might miss the broadcast of your TV interview, but the highlight reel lives on indefinitely, accessible online just a short Google away. The prevalence and ease of replay means that, unlike a few short years ago, you'll continue to be on the hot seat days and months after your interview is over.
It also means that mistakes rarely escape notice and can snowball rapidly as they reach larger and larger audiences through social media shares. Consider as example one of Trump’s most recent gaffes, when he insulted Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother who stood beside her husband at the Democratic National Convention as he delivered a moving tribute to their son. After Trump criticized Mrs. Khan for her silence, charging that as a Muslim woman she probably wasn’t allowed to speak, he spent the the next several days defending himself against a growing firestorm of criticism from an incensed public, including GOP leaders. More recently, sportscasters covering the Olympics have been quickly called out for their sexist remarks about female Olympians, and many of the offending comments were seen—and captured—on Twitter before they could be removed by the regretful.
Sophisticated Media Consumers Want the Real Deal
The American public is part of the story now—they participate in Tweets and shares and they don’t like to traffic or trade in bullshit. These changes have shaped an American public that is a much more sophisticated media consumer than it was a decade ago, and politicians, brands and other entities that want to create good names for themselves have to deliver on these new values to succeed. Those who are slow to adapt to the new rules are failing—and you can see plenty of examples of these failures in the political campaigns of recent months.
One was Marco Rubio's robotic repetition of his key message—and failure to answer the question posed— in the Republican debate in New Hampshire, which earned him the nickname "Marcobot," and essentially ended his bid for the White House. The new emphasis on authenticity over practiced polish also partly explains the appeal Trump holds for many (though his honesty is now looking like what will be his ultimate downfall).
Being real has proved a smart strategy in times of PR crisis, too. Earlier this year BART—the overcrowded and often-delayed rapid transit system that any San Fran-area commuter will gripe about—won some fans at an unlikely moment when it admitted on its Twitter feed that much of its system "has reached the end of its useful life." The young BART employee managing the Twitter feed went on to agree with critics that the system's infrastructure is overburdened, pointing to a lack of funding and the tech boom's unforeseeable impact on the system. The result of this forthrightness was a soaring public attitude about BART (BART measured it with a web sentiment tool). Examples like these are becoming more and more common in the business world. A few weeks ago, Instagram's CEO made headlines for admitting that competitor Snapchat deserved all the credit for Instagram's new Stories product—a copy of Snapchat Stories.
The lesson here is that being wrong or merely less-than-perfect is not nearly as big a sin as being fake. Transparency is the new media currency. This is great news for brands that are authentically trying their best to do good work and be honest about who they are. They can admit their mistakes and move on. Doing so will build their likability, which remains the cornerstone of effective PR even as what the public values continues to change.
By Lesley Gold, CEO at SutherlandGold Group