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: @jerrysilfwer

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 can 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 the medi­um and its con­text influ­ence medi­ated messages.

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.

Learn 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. 

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

Marshall McLuhan: “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.”

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 intro­du­cing a new medi­um will impact human­ity sig­ni­fic­antly more than any­thing sub­sequently trans­mit­ted through that medium.

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, 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.”
— Wikipedia 4Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​M​a​r​s​h​a​l​l​_​M​c​L​u​han

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.

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.

Learn more: 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

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and 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. 5Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

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: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 6Hargis, 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 crit­ic­al 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

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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 Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​M​a​r​s​h​a​l​l​_​M​c​L​u​han
5 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
6 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.

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