The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCommunication TheoriesMedia Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

We need a new playbook for a digital-first landscape.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Traditional media logic is dead, make way for the new.

This article will demonstrate how a new, networked media logic replaces old media logic.

What does this mean for us PR professionals?

Having worked as a PR professional in the intersection between traditional and digital media since 2005, I want to highlight how we must embrace change — or perish as a profession.

Adapt or die.

Here we go:

A Brave New Digital World

The media logic we know might be dead, but it’s quickly being replaced by new logic. We must speed up our digital transformation processes — or risk PR going out of style.

The new online media logic is potentially even more potent than the traditional mass-media logic we’ve grown accustomed to.

Everyone with internet access is several steps closer to real mass influence — all the while, special interests will be able to circumvent traditional gatekeepers and speak directly to their sometimes massive audiences.

The Electronic Age and Digital-First

Human culture is often described based on our access to production technologies (i.e. stone age, bronze age, iron age).

Still, according to Marshall McLuhan and the Toronto School of Communication Theory, a better analysis would be to view societal development based on the prominence of emerging communications technologies.

Marshall McLuhan - Cambridge University - Digital-First
Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University, circa 1940.

Marshall McLuhan suggests dividing human civilisation into four epochs:

  • Oral tribe culture. Handwriting marks the beginning of the end of the oral tribe culture. The oral tribe culture persists but without its former prominence.
  • Manuscript culture. Printing marks the beginning of the end of the manuscript culture. The manuscript culture persists but without its former prominence.
  • Gutenberg galaxy. Electricity marks the beginning of the end of the Gutenberg galaxy. The Gutenberg galaxy persists but without its former prominence.
  • Electronic age. Today, we reside in the electronic age. Likely, we haven’t yet experienced this age’s decline yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) is McLuhan’s mass media analysis, popularising the term global village.

As a PR professional and linguist, I subscribe to the concept of the electronic age. My line of work’s main point of analysis is that society is unlikely to revert to the Gutenberg galaxy.

The PR industry must adapt to digital-first. Why? Because the Typographic Man is not making a comeback.

Read also: Digital-First is the Way

In such a digital-first world, racing towards it, we must be proactive and always stay ahead of fast-paced developments.

What is Media Logic?

Media Logic

Contrary to popular belief, media logic is not one single theory. Instead, it’s a collection of theories about how mediated messages are influenced by the medium and its context.

“The dominant processes, established routines, and standardized formats which frame and shape the production of mass-media content, especially its representation or construction of reality, and its manufacture of news. Media logic intersects with commercial logic and political logic—confluences associated with such phenomena as tabloidization and the mediatization of politics. Media logic exists wherever mediation exists. It contributes to the shaping of social order in modern post-industrial cultures.”
Source: A Dictionary of Media and Communication

Media logic is a rhetorical/critical approach to PR. The theories often describe how the media shapes minds and is used to establish power structures.

“Media logic is defined as a form of communication, and the process through which media transmit and communicate information. The logic and guidelines become taken for granted, often institutionalized, and inform social interaction. A basic principle is that media, information technologies, and communication formats can affect events and social activities.”
Source: Media Logic 1Altheide, D.L. (2016). Media Logic. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.).

For example, a national newspaper should ideally produce news reports from all parts of the country—that’s how it should work.

However, due to commercial imperatives, new distribution models, and changes in consumer behaviours, the newspaper might lean towards producing journalism closer to where the reporters work, where most paying readers live and rely more heavily on click-baiting.

“The position and size of articles on the front page is determined by interest and importance, not content. Unrelated reports […] are juxtaposed; time and space are destroyed and the here and now are presented as a single Gestalt. […] Such a format lends itself to simultaneity, not chronology or lineality. Items abstracted from a total situation are not arranged in causal sequence, but presented in association, as raw experience.”
Source: The New Languages (1956) 2Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.

One way to illustrate this discrepancy is to consider three central aspects of media; production, distribution, and media use:

Media logic.
The dimensions of media logic (Esser 2013:173).

As technology shifts to digital and news cycles become shorter, journalists might begin to favour news stories that journalists can produce faster and faster.

“[…] each communication channel codifies reality differently and thereby influences, to a surprising degree, the content of the message communicated.”
Source: The New Languages (1956) 3Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.

Read more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

Media Logic and Network Effects

In a mass media-centric society, there are few senders and many recipients. Hence, the senders’ agenda will affect many.

In a network-centric society, we are all senders and recipients simultaneously. Marshall McLuhan stated the idea that the media tends to amplify the human body; the telephone is an amplification of your ears, and a notebook is an amplification of your memory.

The Medium is the Message

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his notable book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980).

Despite being one of the most influential thinkers in media theory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely misunderstood. “The medium is the message” is no exception.

“The medium is the message” doesn’t imply that content or substance lacks importance, only that the medium in which messages are sent will significantly impact humanity.

McLuhan proposes that the manifestation of any medium will matter significantly more than anything subsequently transmitted through that medium.

Let’s use Twitter in a social media context: Twitter as a medium will impact humanity more than any single message sent via Twitter.

How can this be?

McLuhan views mediums as extensions of human physiology. Our ability to build houses extends our human skin, as it protects against the elements. This added layer of protection and physical safety frees up mental bandwidth for human interaction.

So, a house is a medium in McLuhan’s interpretation. All human technologies, all the way down to the campfire, are considered mediums.

“McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. […] McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.”
Source: Wikipedia

According to McLuhan, our ability to create extensions of humanity exponentially impacts our communication more than any message conveyed as a result:

  • A lightbulb is a medium (an extension of the human eye).
  • A house is a medium (an extension of the human skin).
  • The telephone is a medium (an extension of human vocal cords).

And so on.

Example: Twitter is a medium extending several human capacities. These technologies have a tremendous impact on how opinions are formed, how groups emerge, how we feel, how information travel, and how we interpret the world. And not only that: The limitations of Twitter impact what’s being communicated on Twitter, too.

Why is McLuhan’s analysis necessary? “The medium is the message” is a stark reminder that a medium’s format (and its limitations) will massively impact human society—and the messages themselves, too.

We often default to seeking meaning in messages but forget to consider the medium’s inherent media logic.

Read also: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

Networked media displaces human-to-human relations and group dynamics across time and distance in a way that we can’t even begin to see the full extent of.

There are various examples of why we must update the traditional thinking around media works. And even more important, is there such a thing as an “ideal” state for networked media?

Services like Google and Facebook are designed to amplify word-of-mouth mechanics, but can virality (effect) ever replace newsworthiness (idea) without something essential getting lost along the way?

The media landscape has shifted from being engineered and automated. Today’s media landscape is an algorithmic organism presenting many social media issues.

With all of this in mind, we might just be doomed to a variation of a Postman-esque dystopia (see also How Social Media Divides Us) where we slowly stimulate ourselves to death.

I don’t think so. We have encountered significant media shifts before, and even though these shifts fundamentally changed how our society works, we survived and adapted.

Perception Management Still Matters

Perception Management

No one is basing their attitudes and behaviours on reality; we’re basing them on our perceptions of reality.

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) proposed that our perceptions of reality differ from the actual reality. The reality is too vast and too complex for anyone to process. 4Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

Those who can manage the perceptions of publics can control their attitudes and behaviours.

The research on perception management is focused on how organisations can create a desired reputation:

“The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activities that help organisations establish and/or maintain a desired reputation (Staw et al., 1983). More specifically, OPM research has primarily focused on two interrelated factors: (1) the timing and goals of perception management activities and (2) specific perception management tactics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organizational Perception Management 5Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.

Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more important than ever before.

“We are all captives of the picture in our head—our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

The Future of PR: Online Influence

We need to claim the death of media logic — at least as we know it. We must harness the differences between traditional media logic and network media logic.

There should also be room for future PR professionals in this brave new world.

When Brian Solis published Putting the public back into public relations in 2009, it encapsulated the PR zeitgeist that big data and communicative behaviours would increase the relevance and importance of our profession.

And the media landscape of today sure has room for talented communication professionals.

Journalists and politicians alike are desperately blaming technology. Governments are pushing tech giants to censor speech. Silent miners and mass media tycoons have confused the selfie generation. And a lot of people are having difficulties coping with social media angst.

But to make ourselves useful, we must educate ourselves as professionals, media consumers, and producers.

Since traditional media logic is mass media-centric, its principles have been rendered useless for those looking to harness the power of the social web.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

1 Altheide, D.L. (2016). Media Logic. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.).
2, 3 Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.
4 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
5 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


  1. Interesting reading! The whole subject is closely related in a way to the subject of my thesis (1997, LTU, Blomqvist & Drugge – Marknadsföring på Internet, Swedish only) where the core conclusion was that marketing on the internet called for a closer relationship to the cstomer, without even knowing whoi that is. Relationship marketing should be derived from the top, the corporate vison, mission, goals and values and built up from the bottom, i.e. values, goals, mission, vision, all the time with the customer at the center of focus. Customer-centric mass-relationship marketing, which is close to news media logic, I personally think.


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