Revolutionary Measures

Luther and Leave – the communication comparisons

As someone who studied history I have a tendency to take a long view of events, comparing and contrasting different eras. And, given this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is worth looking at any lessons that can be learnt by communicators from Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and the widespread rise of anti-establishment movements around the world.Martin_Luther,_1529

First, the political and economic context. Europe in 1517 was made up of multiple, often warring, countries, with power normally focused on a single monarch. Communication was vital to control – you had to know what was going on around your kingdom to ensure order, and larger countries relied on local lords for their support. Most people had a hard life, focused on the land and governed by harvests and the weather. There was one supranational authority, the Catholic Church, which claimed loyalty from all monarchs and their subjects. The rules it set helped ensure its power, pre-eminence and wealth, and Luther’s rebellion was very much against the more worldly behaviour of priests and religious bodies.

Probably 100 years before, Luther’s theses would not have got very far beyond the town he wrote them in. He’d have been arrested by the church, charged, executed and probably forgotten. But the invention of the printing press changed all that, allowing fast communication of his thoughts across Europe, where they could be picked up and turned into a mass movement.

Comparing then and now
Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments. There is a European supranational authority, the European Union, but only its most avid detractors would claim it had the same power over life, death and potential entry into Heaven as the Catholic Church. Instead of the printing press, we have the internet, and particularly social media, which is much more difficult to control, even by the networks themselves.

So, there are a lot of parallels between then and now – an angry population that feels hard done by attacks the establishment, whipped up by charismatic leaders. Both rely on the latest communications technology to sidestep official controls, spreading their message across long distances.

However, what I think is different is that Luther had a positive message that he firmly believed in – he’d been a monk, seen the church from the inside and created an alternative vision based on that. In the same way, Marx and Engels spent years studying the working conditions of the poor before drafting the Communist Manifesto. In contrast today’s populist leaders don’t seem to have a strategy beyond bringing down the old order, with policies that either pander to their followers or offer alternatives that are impossible (Vote Leave and the NHS will get an extra £350m per week) or will cause more harm than good to those that vote for them.

The lessons for communicators from both these examples are clear – if you want your message to resonate you need to have a strong presence on the latest communication channels, whether the printing press or Facebook, and more importantly you need to ensure you are seen as being in-touch with the cares and concerns of those who feel they are not being listened to. After all, the Reformation triggered bloody and sustained wars, the Inquisition and a hardening of positions that is still in evidence today in some countries. Politicians need to take that lesson on board and communicate effectively to woo the disaffected back into the mainstream if they want to remain relevant in today’s society.

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December 6, 2017 - Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , ,

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