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PR Commentary on Current Events, No Thanks

Why media polarisation is disturbing.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

I’d like more PR com­ment­ary on cur­rent events.”

This is com­mon feed­back, but I’m not accom­mod­at­ing this request. There are two main reas­ons for this: one is excess­ively more dis­turb­ing than the other.

Here we go:

Reason 1: Evergreen as a Strategy

I try to be mind­ful of the Follower Contract:

If I prom­ise to be a des­tin­a­tion for the latest PR com­ment­ary on cur­rent events, I must be able to deliv­er on that prom­ise long-term. Since I run a busi­ness based on advising organ­isa­tions, I share ever­green con­tent instead of news commentary.

Doing both could be a bad strategy. If half the return­ing read­er­ship comes for ever­green con­tent and the oth­er half for news com­ment­ary, search engines and social media algorithms, I increase the risk of dis­ap­point­ing half of that read­er­ship — half of the time.

Splitting the return­ing read­er­ship into two halves also makes it expo­nen­tially harder for search engines and social media algorithms to sug­gest my con­tent to the right type of audi­ence. Suppose I dis­ap­point half of the return­ing read­er­ship half of the time. In that case, I’ll trick the algorithms into index­ing my con­tent at a much lower qual­ity level from an engage­ment perspective.

Providing PR com­ment­ary on cur­rent events is a poten­tially excel­lent con­tent strategy. Running two par­al­lel con­tent strategies and risk­ing them can­cel­ling each oth­er out is the issue.

But there’s a more dis­turb­ing reas­on, too.

Reason 2: The Media Polarisation Model

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The Media Polarisation Model

We often hear how the media cli­mate is “polar­ised” — a known and reas­on­ably well-under­stood effect of clas­sic media logic.

It also seems true that social media logic has amp­li­fied the effects of polar­isa­tion by group­ing people into echo cham­bers where con­firm­a­tion bias, con­ver­sion the­ory, and the hos­tile media effect are allowed to roam freely without any checks and balances.

Political elites, par­tis­an media, and social media con­trib­ute to soci­et­al-level polit­ic­al polar­iz­a­tion, lead­ing to mis­per­cep­tions of divi­sion among the elect­or­ate and fuel­ing anim­os­ity and actu­al ideo­lo­gic­al polar­iz­a­tion over time.”
Source: Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 1Wilson, A., Parker, V., & Feinberg, M. (2020). Polarization in the con­tem­por­ary polit­ic­al and media land­scape. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 34, 223 – 228. … Continue read­ing

More deeply, media polar­isa­tion is prob­lem­at­ic because it draws false lines between extremes that aren’t neces­sar­ily per­pen­dic­u­lar. These “false lines” will force oth­er­wise bal­anced media con­sumers to place them­selves between the media-sug­ges­ted extremes.

The Media Polarisation Model - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog - Version 1
The Media Polarisation Model (Version 1). Both extreme pos­i­tions are at the max­im­um dis­tance from the centre of the issue, but that doesn’t mean that the media por­tray­al of “oppos­ing extremes” are per­pen­dic­u­lar to each oth­er. Often, extreme views can be quite sim­il­ar des­pite being described by the media as polar oppos­ites. A “middle ground” between two such extremes can be quite far from the centre of the issue, too.

At the extremes, sheltered by the social safety of a like-minded peer group (i.e. echo cham­ber), it’s pos­sible to dis­reg­ard oppos­ing evid­ence as “attacks” on their pos­i­tion. As the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is states, any such attacks will only strengthen the pos­i­tion of the extremes.

  • The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

Through media polar­isa­tion, the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is sus­tains a “Post-Truth” Zone at the extremes. If a) the zone is wide enough and b) the extremes are suf­fi­ciently close to each oth­er, the forced “bal­anced” pos­i­tion between them will end up in the “Post-Truth” Zone as well.

Post-truth is a soci­et­al phe­nomen­on, influ­enced by the expect­a­tion that hon­esty is the default pos­i­tion, and the pub­lic tol­er­ance of inac­cur­ate and undefen­ded alleg­a­tions in polit­ics.”
Source: Nature 2Higgins, K. (2016). Post-truth: a guide for the per­plexed. Nature, 540, 9 – 9. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​8​/​5​4​0​0​09a

The Media Polarisation Model - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog - Version 2
The Media Polarisation Model (Version 2). Once a peer group with extreme pos­i­tions reach crit­ic­al mass, they’ll be more likely to rein­force their belief when ques­tioned ration­ally. This cre­ates a “Post-Truth” Zone the fur­thest away from the issue’s centre — where even a “bal­anced” pos­i­tion might land.

The forced “bal­anced” pos­i­tion is weak and argu­ably also extreme, there­fore cred­it­ing (not threat­en­ing) all extreme post-truth positions.

Since the forced “bal­anced” pos­i­tion will have a hard time shel­ter­ing any­one from our fear of social isol­a­tion, the spir­al of silence par­tially explains why extremes are so effect­ive in silen­cing the major­ity of oth­er­wise bal­anced media con­sumers. 3Silfwer, J. (2020, June 4). The Spiral of Silence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​s​p​i​r​a​l​-​o​f​-​s​i​l​e​n​ce/

Learn more: The Media Polarisation Model

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Why Media Polarisation is Disturbing

Just like every­one else, I have per­son­al opin­ions. However, as a PR pro­fes­sion­al with 18+ years of exper­i­ence, I can ana­lyse any media issue based on stra­tegic com­mu­nic­a­tion — without sid­ing with any of the extremes.

No mat­ter how pro­fes­sion­al my ana­lys­is of a cur­rent media issue is, I will suf­fer blow­back from extremes, with no back­ing from the silent major­ity what­so­ever. I could, of course, steer clear of the “false line,” but then it wouldn’t be a media ana­lys­is anymore.

Media trends tend to be cyc­lic­al, and I assess that the post-truth era peaked in 2019. I believe the pan­dem­ic, fol­lowed by glob­al infla­tion and AI pro­gress, will dampen the media’s interest in extreme pos­i­tions and shrink the width of the post-truth zone.

Still, it’s dis­turb­ing that the cor­rect busi­ness decision for many aca­dem­ics, pro­fes­sion­als, and organ­isa­tions is to stra­tegic­ally steer clear of top­ics taken “host­age” by extremists.

Post-truth com­mu­nic­a­tion has shaped our under­stand­ing of truth, polit­ics, and the media, with its impact on pub­lic policy, his­tory, and social media.”
Source: Social Studies of Science 4Sismondo, S. (2017). Post-truth? Social Studies of Science, 47, 3 – 6. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​0​3​0​6​3​1​2​7​1​7​6​9​2​076

PR Commentary, No Thanks

It’s a shame, really. From a media per­spect­ive, we live in a time when there’s an abund­ance of cur­rent events worth ana­lys­ing from a PR per­spect­ive. Today, the dis­course around cur­rent events is much too polar­ised — and as a per­son who favours win-win and bal­ance in my per­son­al life, I refuse to incentiv­ise extreme positions.

It’s a for­cing myth per­pet­rated by the extrem­ists them­selves that all com­pet­ent pro­fes­sion­als who are choos­ing the silent path are doing so because they fear being “exposed” by can­cel cul­ture. It’s rather a 100% ration­al busi­ness decision in a post-truth world.


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

PR Resource: More Media Logic

The media’s the most power­ful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the inno­cent guilty and to make the guilty inno­cent, and that’s power.”
— Malcolm X

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Elevate your pub­lic rela­tions skills with this free Media PR Course—a must-have resource for all aspir­ing pub­lic rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als. Boost your career now!

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PR Resource: The Media Blackout

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The Media Blackout Tactic

More and more organ­isa­tions are delib­er­ately avoid­ing any inter­ac­tion with leg­acy news media:

Media Blackout = when an organ­isa­tion inten­tion­ally avoid enga­ging with leg­acy news media, often to con­trol the nar­rat­ive and pro­tect interests. Journalists cri­ti­cise this prac­tice as it obstructs invest­ig­at­ive report­ing and under­mines inform­a­tion transparency.

Media Blackouts are the res­ult of unfair rules of engage­ment in a “Post-Truth” media landscape:

Media Minefield = the “Post-Truth” media land­scape where inter­ac­tions with leg­acy news media often res­ult in delib­er­ate mis­rep­res­ent­a­tion. Organisations nav­ig­ate this ter­rain cau­tiously to avoid dam­aging their repu­ta­tion and pub­lic image.

The Media Analysis

To resolve the situ­ation, we face two main challenges:

  • As organ­isa­tions learn to thrive without leg­acy news media, the PR func­tion must aban­don using the media black­out as a long-term tactic.
  • Legacy news media must acknow­ledge the Media Minefield and return to report­ing the bal­anced truth to the best of their journ­al­ist­ic abilities.

However, as a PR pro­fes­sion­al with 18+ years of exper­i­ence, I believe we will fall short on both these challenges.

Legacy news media will con­tin­ue to fall apart — where the erosion of trust from organ­isa­tions will be one of many con­trib­ut­ing factors. Organisations will likely opt for “Post-Truth” strategies, lead­ing to organ­isa­tion­al cor­ro­sion from the inside out.

Post-truth is a soci­et­al phe­nomen­on, influ­enced by the expect­a­tion that hon­esty is the default pos­i­tion, and the pub­lic tol­er­ance of inac­cur­ate and undefen­ded alleg­a­tions in polit­ics.”
Source: Nature 5Higgins, K. (2016). Post-truth: a guide for the per­plexed. Nature, 540, 9 – 9. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​8​/​5​4​0​0​09a

Instead, new “soci­et­al pil­lars” must be born out of the rubble: a new form of inde­pend­ent news media based on trust (not clicks or ideo­logy) and a new form of suc­cess­ful organ­isa­tions based on trans­par­ency (not avoid­ance or exploitation).

Learn more: The Media Blackout: When PR Declines Media Interviews

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Wilson, A., Parker, V., & Feinberg, M. (2020). Polarization in the con­tem­por­ary polit­ic­al and media land­scape. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 34, 223 – 228. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​3​1​2​3​4​/​o​s​f​.​i​o​/​y​q​vzc
2, 5 Higgins, K. (2016). Post-truth: a guide for the per­plexed. Nature, 540, 9 – 9. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​8​/​5​4​0​0​09a
3 Silfwer, J. (2020, June 4). The Spiral of Silence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​s​p​i​r​a​l​-​o​f​-​s​i​l​e​n​ce/
4 Sismondo, S. (2017). Post-truth? Social Studies of Science, 47, 3 – 6. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​0​3​0​6​3​1​2​7​1​7​6​9​2​076
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has

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