In two weeks I begin my public relations career with a small firm outside of Washington D.C. Preparing for my career I’ve been doing a lot of research and deep thinking about public relations and how it affects the world today. One troubling trend that is impossible to avoid is the publicity that comes with being the loudest voice in the room. I’ll go into examples of loud voices that have taken over our digital lives recently including Donald Trump (sorry), and LaVar Ball. This trend has also seemed to prove the theory that “There is no such thing as bad press”. Conventional thought seems to disprove this thought but when looking at the (relative) Trump and Ball are having it definitely raises questions. Before diving into a debate in whether the press this trend is giving individuals is actually good press I decided to research how this trend started, and if an end is in sight.
State of Modern Media
Media has historically been dominated by TV and Newspapers. These media outlets were the gatekeepers that anyone with a story had to go through. If you wanted to promote a product, tell your story, or get anyone’s attention, you had to be picked. A journalist had to pick up your story and do the work to get it into the world. It wasn’t too long ago that cable and newspaper subscriptions were high and companies didn’t need gimmicks to get you to read or watch. I probably won’t be the first person to tell you that subscriptions for TV continue to spiral downward and the newspaper industry as we knew it, is dead.
A study in July 2016 showed that 25% of households don’t pay for cable television. Another study in the same month shows that only 20% of Americans get their news from newspapers and that number lowers to 14% for the 18-29 age range. Newspapers are now being forced to put their content online and print less papers. To salvage revenues they have a paywall for their content and run an ad-based business model. This means that publishers like the Washington Post give you a certain number of articles free, but after you read enough you’ll be forced to subscribe. They also sell ad space on their website to generate revenue even if you aren’t subscribing.
The rise of social media has also hurt traditional media companies. By the time a newspaper is printed the content is outdated, we’ve already gotten the news on our social media feeds. While newspapers have historically broken stories and given deep insight, they are left now with the sole purposes of keeping the government accountable, and giving a sense of community. Social media also allows us to see “bits” from TV shows, we no longer need to watch the full program. I get sports highlights directly to my Instagram and watch Late Night with Jimmy Fallon clips on YouTube. There’s no need to turn into SportsCenter every morning or stay up late and watch the full episode of Fallon.
Where does this leave us?
The major functions of television and newspapers have changed with the rise of social media. Now networks and papers rely on advertising dollars to even stay in business, and to get these dollars they need viewership. Nowhere is this more prevalent than sports talk shows where we’ve seen the rise of “takes”. Skip Bayless has made a living saying outrageous takes to draw in viewers. We may have complained that his opinion is outrageous, but that didn’t stop us from tuning in every morning to First Take. The more viewers he drew in with his outrageous takes, the more advertising dollars ESPN got. This was a big confusion during the ESPN layoffs earlier in the month. Twitter was up in arms about ESPN cutting their NHL staff and MLB writers. The thing most people don’t realize from the outside is that it’s a business. The amount of readers checking on ESPN’s daily NHL updates fails in comparison the amount of business Stephen A. Smith brings in on a daily basis. Firing Stephen A. and keeping their NHL team would probably result in a better product, but less business, a chance a failing industry cannot take.
This also explains the presence of LaVar Ball across sports media. Even though he’s made outrageous claims like beating Michael Jordan in 1 on 1, saying he wants a Billion dollar shoe deal for his kids, and making Lonzo’s first pair of shoes cost $495, networks eat him up. They know that LaVar will say something outrageous that will create controversy on social media and bring in viewers. Last week he disrespected a female reporter and made fun of a fat guy, and Fox Sports couldn’t have been happier because it meant people would watch and spread the story on social media.
The fact of the matter is strictly reporting the news and having mature debates won’t bring in viewers, controversy will. This leads to louder voices having a bigger platform. No one took advantage of this more than our President, Donald Trump.
The Trump Effect
Months before the general election I was listening to my favorite podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. The guest on this particular episode was Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. The topic of Trump’s media strategy came up and Scott had an interesting angle that is almost surreal in hindsight. He was predicting that Donald Trump would win the election because he was trained in persuasion and hypnosis. He said that Trump was running on emotions, not data.
And he bolsters that approach, Adams says, by “exploiting the business model” like an entrepreneur. In this model, which “the news industry doesn’t have the ability to change … the media doesn’t really have the option of ignoring the most interesting story,” says Adams, contending that Trump “can always be the most interesting story if he has nothing to fear and nothing to lose.” – Donald Trump Will Win in a Landslide
Put yourself in the shoes of a network executive. Your viewership has gone down and your job is on the line if you don’t bring people in. What is more likely to catch the attention of your viewers, a new environmental policy Bernie Sanders promoted, or Donald Trump saying that John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was caught? Certainly the controversial Trump statement would lead to more debate and discussion, and give people at home a reason to post on social media.
Trump’s entire campaign was run on the fact that the more outrageous things he said, the more publicity he would get, and the more people he would have talking about him. Perhaps the biggest example of this was during the first Presidential debate. Clinton was schooling him on his previous statements and lack of policies when he said “I said very tough things to [Rosie O’Donnell], and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.” Guess what news stations talked about the next day? Trump’s controversial comments. More press for him, less for Clinton.
The Trump Effect has trickled down to the LaVar Ball’s of the world. No matter how outrageous the statement, he becomes the most interesting story. Every outlet picks it up, and more people are talking about his clothing brand.
Is There Such Thing as “Bad Press”?
This trend raises the age old question of is there such thing as bad press? History has shown that yes, there can be circumstances where the press you receive negatively impacts your brand. It’s hard to argue that the oil spill was positive press for BP, they are still known for their mistake. Public scandals can ruin a celebrities image and sponsorship’s, such as Tiger Woods. The opposing argument is that even with bad press, you have a platform to correct your mistake and head down a new path.
Even with winning the election because of his press coverage Trump sports an average approval rating below 40% (something that never happened to Obama). A majority of the country doesn’t like him, and don’t want to do business with him.
LaVar Ball may have received an extreme boost in name recognition and social media following, Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour all passed on signing his son to a sneaker deal. People are speculating on whether teams will pass on his son Lonzo to avoid dealing with him.
This leads us to a valuable lesson, attention matters, but so does trust and credibility. With the current state of media. attention is easy. Anyone can rattle off crazy statements to have their voice heard. But once you are heard, how do people feel about you? As a brand, and as a person, you should provoke a feeling of trust and credibility with your audience.
It’s no surprise that the current state of TV and newspapers is not sustainable. They are dying, and they are dying fast. Unfortunately, no one has the answer for what’s next for the mediums. We’ve entered untested waters as newspapers install paywalls and TV networks join the streaming platforms. There’s no telling if the future will break the trend of loud voices dominating our devices. With the public attention Trump and LaVar Ball have received, there’s one thing we can be certain of, imitators.
Even with the annoying trend just remember that attention is only one piece of the puzzle. They may have our attention, but they don’t have to have our money. I urge everyone reading to get your attention organically and establish trust with your audience. We’ve seen short cuts pop up, but they are short lived.
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