Revolutionary Measures

Social media, news and (mis)information

How people get their news – and how reliable it is – has been a hot topic since before the US election. And this week the debate intensified, particularly around the role of social media in acting as a gatekeeper between their users and news sources.

Firstly, Facebook began an experiment in six countries where it has removed unpaid news posts from the main feed and put them in another tab. This has decimated traffic to news websites, with one journalist claiming that it reduced click throughs by 75%. Facebook says that there are currently no plans to extend the trial, but given the amount of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) that the social media giant provides to newspapers, they are increasingly concerned about the impact on their business models.

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Secondly, investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the US election continue, with Google, Twitter and Facebook all being questioned at hearings later this week. Ahead of this Facebook announced that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian trolls, while Google has found 18 YouTube channels used to spread disinformation and Twitter has highlighted 2,700 accounts with dubious Russian links.

Both of these stories demonstrate the growing power of social media and the issues that this brings to the press, democracy and individuals. Essentially it boils down to three areas:

1.The dangers of other people’s platforms
Unlike the telephone or post, social media platforms are not intrinsically open and don’t have a public service element. Therefore, Facebook is perfectly within its legal rights to change how it displays third party information, such as news, or even if it displays it at all. Therefore while media companies have become increasingly reliant on Facebook, it isn’t a balanced (or even contractual) relationship. This shows the danger of building a business on someone else’s platform – it is essentially the online equivalent of running a company from premises where you haven’t signed a lease. You can be thrown out at any time, without redress.

2.Black box algorithms
Serving up relevant content that will appeal to users is what Facebook and Google is all about. But how they do this is increasingly complex, involving the analysis of huge amounts of data with proprietary algorithms that are central to their business. As the events of the US election show, it is possible to manipulate or trick these to deliver particular content to targeted users, not just through ads, but in other ways. This obviously goes beyond the normal social media echo chambers that we all tend to sit in, by providing fake content that is likely to appeal to our own positions and biases. Expect the US congressional hearings to call for greater clarity and oversight of the algorithms behind social media platforms, rather than the current black box system. That brings its own issues – it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were complaining about alleged pro-Democrat bias on Facebook.

3. Follow the money
In many ways the news industry has never been healthier – given the current state of turmoil in the world, more people want to know what’s going on. However, while that is good news for individual journalists, it isn’t necessarily good for media businesses as they increasingly give away their content for free and rely on online advertising that brings in much less per impression than traditional print ads. Therefore, cutting traffic to their sites as Facebook’s experiment seems to do removes one of their sources of income, just when they need it most. While the likes of Google have invested in projects to help the media, particularly local newspapers, it doesn’t fill the funding gap that they currently face.

It is difficult to see how both newspapers and social media can move forward and tackle these challenges. Government regulation would be seen as heavy-handed and potentially lead to accusations of bias on the choice and positioning of news, while the social media giants are unlikely to make public the algorithms that their businesses are built on. However, for the wider good in terms of informing the public, something needs to be done.

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November 1, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Has Donald Trump saved Twitter?

The past couple of years have not gone well for Twitter. User numbers have stalled, attempts to monetise the platform have come to naught and no potential suitors for the company have emerged, despite plenty of rumours.

Donald Trump

Yet, Twitter is probably now the most important (social) media company in the world. It was central to Donald Trump building his fanbase and allowed him to communicate directly with voters during the election, ignoring the media and their pesky fact checking. Essentially it delivered what the internet first promised – a way of interacting with the public without going through middle men, and was, in a large part, directly responsible for Trump’s election as President.

It is a scary thought that while previous politicians looking to grab and hold onto power (think Silvio Berlusconi, Lenin and the Chinese Communist Party) have made it a priority to buy or nationalise communication channels such as newspapers and TV/radio stations, Trump has done it without spending a penny on Twitter. No wonder that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says his feelings about the President-elect’s use of the service are “complicated.”

And Trump’s use of Twitter has, if anything, intensified since the election. He’s used it to challenge the intelligence services’ claims that the Russians hacked Democratic Party emails, and to take potshots at businesses that he claims are moving jobs and production outside the US. The result? Companies such as Ford and Carrier have backed down on overseas investments and the share prices of Lockheed-Martin, Toyota and GM amongst others fell after Trump tweets criticising them. PR and analyst relations professionals for blue chip companies must be spending their time glued to Trump’s Twitter feed, hoping and praying that he doesn’t single them out for punishment, like hapless flunkeys at the court of a particularly unpleasant medieval monarch.

If you needed proof of the power of Twitter, Trump provides it. And ironically, given the left-leaning sensibilities of Silicon Valley, he could well have saved the social network, or at least bought it some breathing space. The number of tweets sent in the US between August and November 2016 was over 1 billion (not all from Trump), with 75 million on election day and its aftermath. While it hasn’t helped the long-term share price, it undoubtedly aids efforts to find a buyer for the service. The question is whether this will be another tech company (Google is a logical fit) or whether another would-be politico will see the opportunity to build their profile à la Trump and invest. Whatever the outcome, expect more incendiary tweets in the future, with policy being set and communicated in 140 characters………….

January 11, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The PR lessons from Donald Trump

In the past being nominated as the Republican or Democrat presidential candidate had a lot to do with money, specifically advertising spend. This was the weapon of choice for winning over primary voters in each state, hence the push by candidates to appeal to big donors who would then bankroll their campaigns. The sheer sums involved are astronomical – experts believe that $100 million was spent solely on TV advertising around the New Hampshire primary. No wonder that the total 2016 election is expected to cost $5 billion – more than the GDP of many small countries.

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...

Normally this counts against the maverick candidate – after all, if you don’t appeal to the big donors with the money you won’t get the advertising, and consequently the primary votes won’t follow. This year, as in many ways, the Republican race is turning out very differently. While the runaway leader Donald Trump has spent money on advertising, it is nowhere near as much as his rivals – for example each of his 239,000 votes in South Carolina cost the equivalent ad spend of $7.42, with a total cost $1.78m. By contrast each of Jeb Bush’s 57,000 votes involved spending of $238.15, with a total budget of $13.78m.

Whatever your opinion of him, Trump has done something that most marketers in general, and PR people in particular, should recognise. Rather than spending money solely on advertising, he’s adopted a balanced marketing strategy that is led by PR and social media, and merely supported by TV and other ads. He’s built a brand and sustained it by continually being controversial – with Twitter the primary channel for his rants. If commentators lauded Barack Obama’s use of social media to win his two terms as president, Trump is the flipside, using the networks to connect with those that feel disenfranchised and left behind by traditional politicians.

Of course, it is all (to put it politely) a load of baloney – and Trump knows it. Policies such as building a wall between the US and Mexico (and getting the Mexicans to pay for it) and banning Muslims from entering the country are both objectionable and unworkable. His ideas for increasing the tax paid by hedge fund managers have been proved by economists to actually reduce the tax take from that group. Yet every time opponents seem to be closing the gap, he opens his mouth, says something offensive/controversial and sees opinion polls soar. It is a classic PR-led marketing campaign.

I’m certainly not advocating any of my clients follow suit with similar sentiments, but there are lessons to be learnt from Trump’s success to date:

1. Play the long game
Trump has spent the past few years building his profile as a celebrity. His bombastic stint on The Apprentice provided the bedrock for his celebrity, and he has nurtured this on Twitter and through inflammatory comments long before the campaign began. In contrast, many of his opponents had little national profile before the Republican primaries began, so have been building a base from scratch.

2. Build a connection
Despite being a billionaire who inherited much of his wealth Trump is seen as being on the side of those that have been squeezed by trends such as globalisation. In the same way that Nigel Farage has cultivated his bloke in the pub persona (despite going to top public school Dulwich College and a career in the City), he has built a connection with his supporters. They feel he understands them and is rooting for them, with social media helping to give a personal, human relationship between him and his followers.

3. Everyone loves the underdog
Trump has positioned himself as the radically different challenger brand, rather than being more of the same. This means he is seen as an outsider – David versus Goliath, despite his wealth, connections and fame. He’s not viewed as a politician, with all the baggage that brings, or even as a serious candidate by many. Again, similar tactics helped Boris Johnson win the London mayoral election – a few stints on Have I Got News for You and he’d positioned himself as a bumbling, unthreatening clown, completely different to the political elite.

4. Be controversial
Again, I’d not advocate clients becoming bigoted, bullying misogynistic racists, but Trump uses language that the general public understands and relates to. He doesn’t just read off an autocue or give speeches that have been refined until there is no meaning left in them. People remember his soundbites and they stand out from the crowd – not just because they are offensive, but because of the type of language he uses. This is all part of his act, but demonstrates an understanding of what makes people respond at a very basic level.

I sincerely hope that Trump fails to get the Republican nomination, and, failing that, that the general public see sense and doesn’t vote him into the White House in the coming election. However everyone in marketing and communications should heed the lessons of his campaign, and look at how they can use PR and social media to get their message across to key audiences.

March 9, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments