The Rise, Rise (and Rise) of the Opinion Cycle

Guest blog post: Trevor Young, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Edelman. Article first featured on Trevor's blog: The PR Warrior Tuesday 25 October - written at PR Directions, the PRIA national conference in Sydney.

Day two of the Public Relations Institute of Australia's PR Directions conference kicked off with an in-your-face presentation by the former senior press secretary to PM Kevin Rudd, Lachlan Harris (pictured).

Harris's presentation - When your communication gets into a spin – the battle of policy vs populism - focused on "the rise and rise and rise of the opinion cycle" and why it has become more important than the news cycle.

Harris has examined the changes in the media over the past five years. His conclusion?

“Opinion happened”

He says: "Opinion has always been a big part of the media but never like it is now."

Harris contends the media industry, which has until recent years been driven by the traditional news cycle, has given way to the cycle of opinion (which includes tweets, blogs, talkback radio etc).

As far as the Australian media industry is concerned, “the apprentice has become the master – opinion reigns supreme”.

This in turn has resulted in "massive fundamental change" to the political landscape.

The rise of opinion is new and it’s fundamentally changing the way politics runs, he says.

News and opinion are intertwined but opinion cycle is "slowly smothering the news cycle".

Tweets, comments, blogs, email, talkback - collectively - are now more important and influential than the news story.

According to Harris, the difference between news and opinion is simple:

News is a flow of information that depends on facts, opinion is a flow of information that depends on argument.

“Opinion is a fundamentally different proposition to news”

So much of the information we’re exposed to in politics has little to do with facts.

Facts don’t matter, arguments do, he says.

According to Harris, five years ago Kerry O’Brien was the most influential media figure in Australia; today it’s Andrew Bolt (because he has a talent for provoking debate).

WHY IS THE MEDIA OBSESSED WITH OPINION?

“Opinion is cheaper than fact” – it's much easier to fill a page of opinion versus the volume of output required for fact-based reportage which requires a team of journalists.

Opinion is a lot easier to package for readers, listeners and viewers. If you give an opinion, you can’t be disproved.

“It’s much, much harder to establish fact.”

But there are consequences associated with the rise of opinion: “We have developed a lot more divisive political culture”.

“Hyper-negative, super critical” opinion is coming from the community, says Harris.

This negativity is not just confined to the politicians – sports people and artists etc cop it too.

“Opinion is driving us into a very negative place.

“Stories that divide community opinion don’t get churned and burned in the news cycle but slowly roasted in the opinion cycle.”

Harris outlined several tips for the audience largely made up of PR types:

  • “Adjust your radar, look for ‘faultlines’” – whereas you used to assess media opportunities on the facts, you've now got to pick up on ‘faultlines’ … need to understand how your story is going to drive debate…how are people going to react to it emotionally, and how are they going to develop an argument around that?
  • If you want to argue for change (not just political), you HAVE to be prepared for negative criticism.
  • Stories don’t ever, ever, ever go away - "the wisdom of the crowd is driving these stories on and on and on".
  • News judgment is being overwhelmed by the wisdom of the crowd - “We need to adjust our timelines”.

Harris sums up: “The media is now a rougher and tougher game” than ever before.

However, he suggests there may be a swing back to the appreciation of fact-based news. Eventually…

The PR Warrior's View?

A lot of what Harris says makes sense.

But Harris also comes from the hurly-burly of political spin doctoring. Participants in this space are often combative by nature and being reactive to circumstances is a daily occurrence. To them, negativity is very much a fact of life.

There must be something companies and individuals can do to offset the tide of negative opinion rather than merely bunker down through fear? What can be done in a 'positive sense' to (try to) redress the balance? Is everything really that bad out there?

I'm thinking being proactive is key. Always be out there telling your story (not just in times of crisis). Build your brand reputation through open engagement with the people who matter most the success of your business, cause or issue...ongoing. Connect directly with the marketplace rather than relying on the media filter.

Maybe the answer is to mix Lachlan Harris's hard-edged pragmatism and innate understanding of the media with Brian Solis, who kicked off the conference with a superb presentation about engaging with people in today's hyper-connected age.

It would make an interesting combo!

NOTE: My next post will be on Brian Solis's talk.