Today’s Political Communication Mis-‘Tweets’ the Public

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; # Life; #Liberty; # PursuitofHappiness.”

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created; # Equal.”

“…With the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God. I ask that the Congress declare # unprovoked; # dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday #12/7/41; #War!”

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev #Opengate. #Tearwalldown.”

Twitter
If Twitter and Facebook had always been the omnipresent public communication tools they are today, some of the most memorable statements in our history might have lost a little something. Many important messages have been remarkable, not just for their elegance and power, but their brevity. Yet, if past leaders had relied on social media and had to express their most heartfelt and profound thoughts in 140 characters, a lot of indelible words would never have been uttered.

Social media have certainly added dimension to the practice of political and public affairs communication. Political candidates and elected officials can now convey messages to audiences with pinpoint accuracy almost instantly. Few do not have a Facebook page or use YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and others to augment more traditional means of communicating to the public: speeches, advertising and websites; or through the media with press releases, statements and opinion articles. Social media allow quick reaction to breaking news and events, or to public statements or actions by an opponent and getting that reaction included in news coverage. They are also used to promote and direct the public to more in-depth communication: detailed responses to breaking events or public announcements or statements of position on public issues.

Social media also have a major impact on traditional media. Television news is now viewed more and more on smart phones, laptops and tablets rather than TV sets. Newspapers are becoming endangered species as more people get their news online. Many reporters Tweet, blog and use Facebook to convey breaking news between print editions or newscasts.

But this evolution in public communication isn’t all positive. In what appears to be a battle for relevance, television news coverage is attempting to compete with social media in immediacy, often at the expense of depth and context. Rather than telling us what’s really going on and what it really means, it’s, “Here’s what we just heard!”

Broadcast news coverage is becoming more sensational and more shallow. Days after significant events, television reporters still do on-camera reports from the scene as if the events were in progress or had just ended. And such continuing coverage is frequently promoted as “Breaking News.” Pundits analyze events long after their occurrence and their analysis is bannered “Breaking News.” It’s not breaking news. It’s broken news.

This revolution in communication isn’t over. The 2016 presidential campaign has brought us more dramatic transformations in the art and science of political communication. It’s changed what constitutes an appropriate statement by a candidate or campaign, and changed the content and nature of the news itself. Most of this has been driven by one candidate.

Last June, Donald Trump wasn’t really considered a serious contender for President of the United States. The GOP had 16 more seasoned political figures; some more experienced than others; some better financed; some more credentialed or with more impressive political pedigrees, but all much more plausible, more serious candidates for national office than a real estate hustler from Manhattan whose celebrity status arose from a “reality” TV show in which his most memorable line was, “You’re fired!”

However, the news media, particularly television, and most particularly cable television networks, quickly became hooked on Trump. Pressured to maximize ratings and advertising revenues, they constantly and endlessly cover the sensational. Donald Trump’s off-the-cuff rants and riffs at his frequent campaign rallies have become nearly daily “breaking news,” covered live and usually in their entirety by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Then they’re endlessly analyzed by pundits. Trump’s tweets are frequently cited and quoted in newscasts; the more outrageous the charges and language, the more they’re quoted.

Over time, campaign rallies and Twitter have become the primary communication channels for the Donald Trump campaign, and the constant news coverage has moved him to the top tier.

A New York Times analysis found Trump received nearly $2 billion dollars in free air time in one year, compared to $746 million received by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In fact, Trump received about $400 million in free air time in May alone, about what Senator John McCain spent in his entire 2008 presidential race. At the same time, Trump actually purchased less television advertising than any other major candidate. With all the free time, he didn’t need it.

But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the Trump style of political and government communication, and of the news media’s reliance on social media for the story, is that it’s a celebration of the superficial. His Tweets, his rally speeches — even his major speeches — have contained little if any depth or detail.

Is this the future of political campaign communication? Will the public allow social media blitzes and ‘rant and riff’ campaign rallies to be the major vehicles of candidates for President of the United States to communicate their thoughts and vision for the country’s future?

Facebook may be a great way to keep up with friends, share travel pictures or show off your cat’s latest tricks. Twitter is fine for terse reactions to public statements or events, like rock concerts. But neither medium is suitable nor capable of conveying detail, reasoned arguments or serious thoughts about complex and serious public issues.

The final judgement will be ours. But, if we’re ready to choose the leaders of our national government and the direction our country will move based on pep rallies and 140-character tweets, we will be seeing a lot more Donald Trumps and a lot less substance in our future.


Dave HelfertDave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.

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