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18 September 2015

It’s not a bunker, it’s a hazard – ignoring the media is bad for Corbyn and for business

Written by: Nick Barron, Managing Director at Edelman

Corporate Reputation, Government Affairs, Media

The Jeremy Corbyn era is proving to be an interesting experiment in more ways than one. Not only is the public’s appetite for old-left policies being tested, but we’re also about to find out whether British politics has entered a post-mainstream-media phase, in which the traditional gatekeepers of public debate can be sidelined, in favour of direct engagement. Corbyn has no media strategy and is happy in his bunker.

“We can ignore our critics” is a tempting thesis in politics and in business. Journalists are awkward buggers at best and agenda-driven at worst. Corbyn has spent a lifetime being ignored by the media and a few months being mocked and demonised. In the digital age, when Facebook use comfortably outstrips TV news consumption, why bother with middle men determined to distort your message? For businesses, why seek third party endorsement if Edelman’s Trust data says that “a brand I have a relationship with” is a more trusted source of information than a journalist? Why not just invest in building direct relationships through owned and social channels, CRM and employee advocacy programmes and dispense with the pesky business of earned media relations?

Although all of these channels are vitally important to any communications strategy, there are four reasons why the mainstream media can’t be ignored.

It’s called the mainstream media for a reason

The mainstream is where most voters and customers still hang out. Our analysis of the 2015 UK General Election showed that despite the growing role of social media, TV news remained king. Edelman’s partners at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism have shown that while social is reshaping the way we consume news, the sources we link to tend to be familiar names like the BBC, the Mail, Sky, the Guardian and a powerful group of digital native brands like The Huffington Post, VICE and Buzzfeed.

In a social age, the public are the gatekeepers but mainstream media brands start most of the conversations. Fail to engage with journalists and you leave a vacuum, which journalists will happily fill in ways you won’t like. Unless you’re Sir Alex Ferguson at the height of his power, you have little leverage.

The process matters more than the output

The point of engagement is not simply to deliver a flattering headline, it’s to show you tried. The single biggest factor that drives Trust in companies is customer engagement. People want to see that you care about their vote or custom and you are listening to their ideas. Audiences will reward those leaders who stand up for what they believe in, tackle their critics head-on and fight for support, regardless of whether they succeed with a particular journalist. Leaders who only talk to their own supporters or natural constituents aren’t really leaders.

It’s easy to see how repellent echo chambers are to those on the outside – here’s a test: Look at a candidate you disagree with. If you’re a Corbyn supporter, perhaps that might be Donald Trump. Now watch Sarah Palin’s sycophantic interview with Donald Trump, where she takes her usual pot shots at ‘lame stream media’. Trump couldn’t have wished for a more perfect platform, but in terms of winning votes, it will have achieved nothing and repelled the undecideds. An interview with Chris Hayes might produce a less favourable piece, but it’ll win Trump some grudging admirers.

Subjecting yourself to scrutiny makes you stronger

The most rewarding aspect of corporate PR is that the process of preparing for outside scrutiny forces you to ask tough questions of yourself and come up with better answers. Journalistic enquiry still works as a forcing mechanism for organisational change.

At its worst, this can mean politicians and companies backing away from doing and saying what they believe in, because the winning the battle for public opinion is too difficult. At its best, it means that they sharpen their arguments and improve what they do by asking the most powerful question of all: “How would people react if they heard this?”

Edelman’s media trainers are much tougher than any journalist they might face, not because they want to humiliate our clients (rarely a good business strategy), but because smart clients know that that if you refuse to take tough questions, you miss the opportunity to improve.

Your critics often aren’t as entrenched as you think they are

In the US, political dynast Hilary Clinton is being eclipsed by elderly career politician Bernie Sanders who, like Corbyn, offers a combination of straight-talking and (by US standards) left-wing ideas. Also like Corbyn, Sanders was written off by the political commentariat, who assumed power would pass naturally along to the favourite. Unlike Corbyn, Sanders has chosen to engage the mainstream media – speaking with unapologetic conviction to anyone who will listen and he is starting to turn the tide.

A decade and a half of Trust data has charted the decline of the Age of Deference. We no longer trust traditional sources of authority like CEOs or politicians. We trust the crowd. We trust the regular person. We trust “outsiders” not “insiders”. An “outsider” like Sanders – who delivers a positive message and tackles his critics head-on – can win. An outsider who retreats to the comfort of his echo chamber or adopts an “evangelical model” – will lose.

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