If it bleeds, it leads.

Image result for contaminated water Irish Water gave us the stick, and we are beating them with it.

The press mantra of the title explains the conundrum.  We live in a world that is safer than it has ever been in the history of the world.  Yet fear rates have never been higher.  Crime rates may fall across the board but the reporting of crime continues to raise the threat levels.  If your local friendly rag can’t find a violent crime in your neighbourhood they will simply cast the net wider.  In our digitally interconnected global village there is no effort required to turn up a salacious, lurid or graphic violent crime to further terrify your readers.

If it bleeds it leads because if it bleeds it sells.  We are the authors of our own victimisation, our own anger, our own exploitation, because we give our money or our attention to the graphic, the lurid and the salacioius.

In Ireland water was managed by a plethora of small, under-resourced local authorities.; town and county municipalities, where budgets were allocated in a highly political manner by local councillors.  The approach for water was to make do and mend, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  If water became contaminated the goal was to fix it quietly.  What the people don’t know won’t harm them.  Above all:  Don’t upset the Elected Representatives.  As a water plant manager you could not afford to make the politicians look bad, because they held the purse strings.

Enter Irish Water, a nationally constituted public sector organisation given responsibility for all water management in the country.  For the purpose of this post I am ignoring the misguided attempt by the Government to install water meters in every home in Ireland, and the accusations that this was an attempt to privatise water in Ireland.  Those are issues that require entire books, not a blog post.

Irish Water is constituted in a very different way from the Local Authorities.  It was born of another public sector organisation; Bord Gáis.  When you manage the national gas network you need to be focused on safety.  Gas has the potential to explode.

As a result of the Gas governance framework Irish Water was furnished with the tools and the business culture of risk identification, risk reporting, issue reporting.  As Irish Water management take over the Local Authorities they need to change the culture from one of political expediency to one of “Safety First”.

The result of this cultural change is an explosion in the tracking of faults and the reporting of material breaches in standards.  The newspapers are flooded with lurid headlines, burst pipes, dirty water, boil notices, plant failures, activated alarms, contaminated beaches.

As our drinking water becomes safer and safer the fear level of contaminated water increases.

As the investments in waste water treatment plant begin to pay dividends the media become increasingly vocal on each spill of untreated sewage.

The reaction from the general public?  Irish Water is a disaster.  Things were better in the old days.

They weren’t.

 

 

The 5th Estate

tennis_court_oath

The Tennis Court Oath, Versailles, 1789

In the traditional model of rule, dating back to feudalism, there were three powers in the realm.  These were called the “Estates General” in pre-revolutionary France.

The first, and foremost was the Lords Temporal, made up of the hereditary royalty of the realm.  In effect these were the main landowners.

The second estate was the Lords Spiritual, the Cardinals and Bishops who ruled the church and wielded the power of “God” on earth.

The third, most numerous, and also the weakest estate was traditionally made up of commoners.  This is not to say they were poor peasants.  In fact the “Commons” were merchant princes, bankers, lawyers and aldermen selected to represent the interests of the middle classes.

Three great events in the 17th and 18th Centuries changed the dynamics of the Estates General forever.

  • In 1649 the British Parliament ordered the execution of King Charles, shattering the concept of “Divine Right” to rule.
  • In 1776 13 colonies of the United States of America declared their right of self-determination, a right of the 3rd estate to be free of the rule of the 1st estate.  No taxation without representation!
  • In 1789 the French 3rd estate seized power from the 1st and 2nd estates and firmly issued in the age of enlightenment.

Never again were the 1st and 2nd estates to hold power in the Western world without the agreement of the 3rd estate.

In the midst of this redefinition of the balance of power Edmund Burke, an Irish peer, made an address to Westminster on the reporting of parliamentary business by the Press.  He pointed out that the Press represented a 4th Estate which potentially wielded more power than the 3 estates general.  It proved to be a prophetic prediction.

Today almost every coup d’état begins with the seizure of the organs of the media, the presses, the radio stations and the TV stations.  Politicians and their military arms know that the media battle is as important as any conflict of arms.  Tight autocratic rule is only possible where the rulers control the media, the 4th estate.

The concept of a 5th estate, non mainstream media, emerged in the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, originally as the eponymous Detroit Newspaper.  It spread to a variety of media, but was restricted by traditional constraints on output.  The odd piece of output made a splash, such as the “Anarchists Cookbook”, but most of the small publications and independent radio broadcasts were lost to tiny circulations.

Then the internet arrived.  The 5th estate has blossomed on media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and in the darkest corners of the deep web.

Despite the best efforts of autocratic regimes it is very difficult to control the 5th Estate.  China is the best example of a state that exerts tight control.  Even the great firewall of China is porous.  The regime cannot control all the information that filters in and out of the nation.  People import smartphones from abroad, or use various tricks to bypass state control of the firewalls.

The “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the Middle East were made possible by the 5th Estate.  Rebels were able to use social media to tear apart the propaganda and lies of the ruling elite.  They then used social media to coordinate and organize protests, uprisings and even battles.

Mainstream journalists use and abuse social media to bypass super injunctions by courts to control celebrity scandals.  They breach the laws of sub judice reporting in a manner that is impossible in the 4th estate.  Whistleblowers use social media to release data into the public domain including Julian Assange, Linda Tripp, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning etc.

The impact of the 5th Estate on Western Democratic politics is only now beginning to crystalize.

The rules are being formed but we get an emerging sense of the landscape.
Cover-ups don’t work.
Fraud is uncovered.
Nepotism is exposed.
Secret donations do not remain secret.
Past statements of politicians are dredged up and used as a stick to beat them.

The age of the media savvy politician and his spin-doctor sidekick is over.
We are entering a new era of politics, where consistency, honesty and openness are the sine qua non of political survival.

Large central parties are fracturing and falling apart as their corrupt members are isolated and exposed.
For the individual politician loyalty to the constituency is more important than loyalty to the party.
We see this in the rise of the independents, the mavericks, those outside mainstream politics.  The Trump factor.

The new era will favour smaller groupings with tighter internal agreement on issues and higher levels of trust between members.  “Family” style groupings who share values.
Governments will be by coalitions of these small groups.
The practice of governing will become more fluid as alliances are made, broken and reformed based on prevailing economic and political priorities.

The 4th estate has been increasingly controlled by the wealthy, who can afford to buy the media, and establish editorial standards.  Would the Watergate Scandal see the light of day in the current media climate?

By contrast the 5th estate is uncontrollable.  It can be influenced by those with the largest social media followings.

In the next 20 years you will see attempts by the wealthy to influence the 5th estate by buying influence.  Anyone who is seen as “bought” will rapidly lose traction.

King Canute (or Cnut) is famous for trying to hold back the tide.
In fact he was criticizing sycophantic nobles who accorded him divine powers.
He demonstrated that for all his power he was unable to order the tides.
Canute would understand just how uncontrollable is the 5th Estate.

king canute on the beach

Canute holds back the tide

 

POEM

REGrant

Photo:  Richard E Grand in “How to get ahead in Advertising”

 

As anyone who reads my blog soon learns, I end each post with a poem.  The purpose of the poem is to trap emotion.  Poetry is emotion encapsulated in word.  This blog is a record of my emotional state at any given point in time.

However, I learned something very new about the POEM this week.  It is an analysis frame for tracking public relations communications in a firm.

The acronym stands for Paid, Owned and Earned Media.

Paid Media are the messages that we pay for, mostly falling under the terms “Advertising” and “Promotions”.  Advertising is sometimes referred to as “Above the Line” ATL communications, with Promotions being “Below the Line” BTL.

There is a bit of debate surrounding the origin of the terms ATL and BTL.  My preference is for the following explanation.  Under the agency system an ad agency presented a bill to the client every month.  The bill was in two parts above and below a line.  The top part, ATL, billed the advertising creative and media placement for the month.  In this section the ad agency would detail the full retail cost of the media placement if purchased on its own.  Because ad agencies place large volumes in media, they receive huge discounts against the retail cost.  They pass some of these discounts on to the client, depending on client size.  For large clients they are able to display how much the client saved that month by being with the ad agency ( as opposed to making their own ads and buying retail price media space).  So the bill to the Marketing Manager was traditionally presented as a saving.  The ATL costs came from the Marketing budget.

Promotional activities are discounted from the cost of sales.  So product vouchers, BOGOFs, 50% extra, half price offer etc all come from the sales budget rather than the advertising budget.  So the Marketing Manager did not have to spend this money.  As a result the BTL was of less concern.

With paid media you own the message but not the medium.  You might advertise your alcohol product in the middle of a programme about alcoholism, or your beautiful auto ad might follow a road safety ad.  The issue of message control, reach and message cost is central to media debates.  As a rule the more expensive the medium is, the more control we have, and the less reach we have.  We gain the greatest reach at the lowest cost in the media where we relinquish the most control.

Owned Media are those where we control both the medium and the message.  A corporate website, an annual report, product brochures etc.  In general it is not the kind of channel that sets the world ablaze, but we do retain ownership and control of both the medium and the message.

Earned Media is the bear trap.  This is the place where we can gain column inches for free, but the story is not under our control.  It may not be telling the message we want to get out there.  At the high control end we have trade magazines, which beg for copy to generate interest in the publication.  These publishers are unlikely to publish a savage dissection of a good advertising client.  At the other end of the scale is social media, where audiences will routinely hijack your message for their entertainment.  If this damages your company, brand or product they don’t care.  In the past the earned media environment was dominated by PR companies who seeded the media with positive news stories, and who attempted some form of damage control when a negative story hit the presses.  Nowdays it is increasingly in the digital space where sharing a squash club with a national newspaper editor carries no weight.  In this space everyone is still learning.

The Advertising Poem

A man wakes up after sleeping under an advertised blanket,

on an advertised mattress, pulls off advertised pajamas,

bathes in an advertised shower, shaves with an advertised razor,

brushes his teeth with advertised toothpaste, washes with advertised soap,

puts on advertised clothes, drinks a cup of advertised coffee,

drives to work in an advertised car, and then, refuses to advertise,

believing it doesn’t pay.

Later when business is poor, he advertises it for sale.

Why is it?

Unknown