Brexit and the Media: How Bad Was It, Anyway?

Brexit has left many spectators bewildered about the role of news media in the outcome of the vote. In a recent blog post, Timea Klebercz suggests that several factors in a malfunctioning communication setting have helped the ‘Leave’-side win the referendum. In this blog post, I provide alternative explanations and solutions for the existing problems, which Timea has already introduced. In the face of several upcoming elections in Europe, it seems also well-timed to advise political PR professionals on how they can take along this knowledge to their own contexts.

Creative Commons, Artfcity

Partisan news media – how bad are they really?

Timea criticizes the role of partisan news media by questioning their selective reporting during the Brexit referendum. Critics might argue against her claim, that opinionated news should usually foster the quality of public debates, especially because the UK has a diverse range of dissenting partisan media. Hence, people should be able to consider a lot of different opinions.

Nevertheless, I share Timea’s opinion that partisan media were detrimental to the matters of Brexit, yet for different reasons. In my view, there was another level that helped to hinder the establishment of a fruitful public discourse. Partisan media have created civic echo chambers of likeminded opinions through reporting ideologically and highly selective. Thus, being surrounded by similar opinions has made it less likely for readers to exchange their political views with different-minded people. This is supported by behavioural research, showing that people, who are solely relying on partisan media, strongly reinforce their negative emotions towards people with opposing opinions.

Thus, in my opinion, political PR professionals need to see partisan media differentiated. For one thing, like-minded partisan newspapers can be considered easy targets for earned media coverage by professionals. Yet in the end, politicians need to find political consensus amongst different opinions. Because political PR professionals also promote this democratic process, they should avoid jeopardizing it. Hence, they must carefully find their balance between campaigning their interests to potential voters and fostering public debates across society.

Creative Commons, WSJ Graphics

How simple is too simple?

But what does having partisan media on both extremes of the political spectrum imply for the coverage of issues? Timea points out that partisan news media have distorted complex EU issues into oversimplified populisms. News media have battled, armed with polarizing frames, for their sovereignty in interpreting the political reality. While this is factually correct in the Brexit case, it also needs to be delved into why that was and how it could be solved.

According to the 2015 Eurobarometer, Brits were less interested in EU issues than any other member state. In my opinion, complex political issues should be communicated in ways that try to also engage politically apathetic people in politics. For example, a study by Matthew Baum showed that the personalized writing style in tabloids can help increasing political attention amongst politically uninterested readers. Yet, I agree with Timea that simple messages can be dangerous when they are framed the way she explains. Some researchers assert that people try to collectively make sense of political issues by aligning their existing frames to some degree. However, this process is not possible when opposing frames are characterized as non-negotiable with other people’s opinions.

Therefore, political PR professionals should communicate their issues simply but constructively. A major share of citizens with lesser political knowledge may sometimes need explanations that are accessible to broader audiences. However, these explanations should be open to factual criticism and negotiable with other opinions.

About the author:
Thilo Schröder is a Political Communication (MSc.) student at the University of Amsterdam. Interested in how societies deal with crisis situations, he is writing about them in his blog entries. Thilo likes to travel and he is furthermore deeply interested in global football cultures. You can follow Thilo on Twitter.

PR lessons from the 2016 Munich shooting

Citizens were alarmed when a gunman opened fire at a fast food restaurant in Munich-Moosach on 22 July 2016. Social media was soon used by eyewitnesses, while police forces were still on their way to the scene. In a previous blog article, I pointed out the importance of uncertainty, magnitude and responsibility in crisis situations. If there was a particular bad prototype of all these factors, it could maybe be defined as this case: The situation was utterly uncertain (the perpetrator was fleeing), of major magnitude (9 casualties, many injured) and unsettled responsibility (was it a terrorist attack?).

Stefan Wust, Creative Commons / Public Domain

Yet, days later the Munich Police were internationally praised for their crisis communications. Specifically, commentators pointed out the police’s effective use of social media and the role of spokesperson Marcus da Gloria Martins in the crisis. But what particularly lead to the public perception that the Munich Police handled their crisis communications so well?

The Role of Social Media

The Munich police were fast to respond to the incident on Twitter and Facebook. 20 minutes after the first emergency calls, the police started posting in German, English and other languages. The tone introduced was being informative and instructive, aiming to prevent the public from danger and establish investigative work.

By doing so, the social media team built a powerful response strategy that was tailored to the situation and needs of the public: Because the police were involved in the investigation but not the cause of the crisis, they did well in tweeting proactively and multilingually about the factual status quo. A study shows that this is crucial to immediately establish information authority and accessibility to reduce people’s uncertainty, which also comprises international stakeholders (such as tourists). Furthermore, another study indicates that the use of Twitter as a medium for the informative strategy may have already led to less negative crisis reactions. Thereby, the public may have also been more likely to align their perception of the events according to police statements, as this additional research points out.

The Role of the Spokesperson

Just 2,5 hours into the ongoing chase, police spokesman Marcus da Gloria Martins hold an impromptu press conference. Substantially, the official continued the police’s crisis-response strategy by answering journalists’ questions concisely with verified information. In the conversation, the spokesman successfully avoids speculative pitfalls: Being asked about rumors, da Gloria Martins answers: “I cannot answer this question because I would have to guess. And that would be profoundly untrustworthy.”

Da Gloria Martins proceeded the previously outlined crisis-responses throughout the whole interview and thereby contributed to a consistent strategy focussing on factual information and reducing public uncertainty. This is supported by academic evidence pointing out the importance of consistent cross-media messages in crises to overcome public confusion. Furthermore, the official makes use of unagitated verbal and vocal cues to transport his messages. An experimental study demonstrated that lowered voice pitch, eye contact, calm facial expressions and body movement, as used by da Gloria Martins, are beneficial to communicators’ perceived competence in crisis situations. This, in turn, may spill over to the police’s reputation in handling the crisis, the study’s findings imply.

In summary, the Munich Police used an informative communication strategy that was effectively aligned to the circumstances under which the crisis occurred. Moreover, by choosing the right media, being cross-medially consistent and credible this was even enhanced.


About the author:
Thilo Schröder is a Political Communication (MSc.) student at the University of Amsterdam. You can follow Thilo on Twitter.

Minding the Public in Times of Crisis

3 Ways to Create More Effective Crisis Communications

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Managing organizational crises is hands down one of the supreme disciplines of PR professionals. Crisis situations are often feared by professionals because they are unpredictable events that bear adverse impacts for the affected organization. Over recent years, the advent of social media has enabled the public to increasingly interact online and to discuss own views on crisis situations.

Newly published research papers (1, 2) now point out the public’s crucial role in forming perceptions of organizational crises . In three easy points, this article gives implications how professionals can use the studies’ findings to communicate more effectively in times of crisis.


1. Uncertainty matters

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The immediate phase after your crisis event started holds some pitfalls for you as a crisis manager. Neither you, the news media nor the public really know what happened. A study finds that when there is little information available, people start to speculate about the recent events on their own. Rumours or false information may spread on social media as a consequence of this behaviour.

To do: Try to immediately clarify evidently false information by communicating with your stakeholders. The advent of social media has enabled you as a professional to interact with the public in close to real-time. However, be careful to only communicate information that you have also verified. Do not join speculations or base your replies on assumptions you have about the event. If your replies later turn out to be inaccurate or false, your credibility and reputation will be severely damaged.


2. Magnitude matters

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Every crisis is different. Organizational crises can range from a bad product review to major fatal catastrophes. The public will not only have an increased interest in severe crises, but also use different sources to get their information from. A study has shown that the more severe the crisis is, the more people turn to the news media to get verified information.

To do: When preparing for different crisis scenarios, do not only focus on potential messages in your responses itself, but also mind to whom you are talking to first. Focus on strengthened media relations for potential crisis cases that are severe and therefore more likely to be big in the news. In these cases, the public discussion on social media will be largely guided by the media coverage anyway.


3. Responsibility matters

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People do not only read news and discuss your crisis to inform themselves about the current situation. A study finds that people also mainly do so to check the organization’s responsibility and to evaluate the cause of the crisis. Another study adds that if the public just believes that the organization could be the potential cause of the crisis, they will spend more attention to releases of the organization.

To do: Mind that the public perception of the event is already shaped by the media coverage. Accordingly, use response strategies that take these into account instead of ignoring them. If taking over responsibility and apologizing in crisis situations, use your own corporate channels. The communication of responsibility will not increase people’s engagement with any other media coverage, but with the organization’s information.


About the author:
Thilo Schröder is a Political Communication (MSc.) student at the University of Amsterdam. You can follow Thilo on Twitter.