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Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments.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.

December 6, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The C-word and social media

Events over the last week have got me thinking about social media and the C-word (censorship). Firstly, Twitter announced that it was ‘accommodating countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression’, i.e. enabling the blocking and deletion of tweets on a country by country basis. The example it gives is the legal ban on pro-Nazi speech in Germany and France, which no right thinking person is going to disagree with. The issue obviously comes when something is not to the taste of a particular regime, but a key issue that citizens of that country want to discuss. If you take the example of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, would the tweets of protesters have been removed?

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 10:  A printing pres...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

At the same time the European Union has published its new Data Protection Laws, which, if passed, will become law across all 27 EU members. These include the so-called Right to Forget, which means any citizen can demand that information they have posted on social media is not just removed from that network, but the entire web. Again, this is a question of degree – removing that dodgy student photo from Facebook when you start going for job interviews is one thing, deleting a tweet from a politician that makes him/her look stupid seems to me to be completely different.

None of this is new – all through history there’s been a conflict over the control of how information is distributed. In early civilisations this was pretty simple – only certain people could read/write/chisel hieroglyphics so rulers could keep a close eye on them. And if malcontents daubed slogans on the walls of public places, not a huge number of people would see them.

Obviously this changed with the printing press, which provided the ability to make multiple copies of documents relatively quickly and easily. So governments regulated printers (and pretty much still do) to try and control what information was disseminated. What makes the internet and social media so different is that you don’t need expensive printing and distribution channels – you can tweet or send a Facebook update using a mobile phone or PC from anywhere. Governments can track down who is responsible, but it takes time, hence the wholesale banning of social media

or switching off of mobile networks, for example in Egypt last year.

So, you can see Twitter’s new rules and the EU’s laws as just part of an ongoing struggle between the rulers and the ruled. However I think that social media has tipped the balance towards citizens and away from governments – it is simply too difficult to regulate, even with the support of the networks themselves. New ones will simply spring up – and the only way to combat them will be to switch off the internet entirely. And in our connected, web world that cripples a country’s ability to operate. So while censorship is still a threat it is beginning to become an increasingly empty one.


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January 30, 2012 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment