Friday 7 January 2011

The social media challenge to 21st century politics

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced he is to leave his post to become an outside adviser to President Obama and was quoted as saying "stepping back will take some adjusting". This was quite an understatement.

In March last year, Time magazine had a fascinating article talking about how the White House was struggling to cope with the 'news cyclone' "a massive force without beginning or end that churns constantly and seems almost impervious to management". The pressure acting as the President's human shield must be immense.
This is why I would argue the role of Press Secretary in its current guise will soon be pretty much defunct. At the moment the US Press Secretary is only just below cabinet rank matching the importance the press and media had historically in influencing the American public.  By the end of Obama's presidency this - or at least the role - will have changed.

What the Time article goes on to describe is a vast reduction in the audiences for prime time Presidential press conferences - a halving from 30 years ago. With newspaper circulations also in decline Americans - like all of us - are influenced by a much wider selection of media. From e-mail to blogging via Twitter and Facebook; all are influencers and all are difficult, neigh impossible, for governments to manage.

In the past a press briefing by the Press Secretary would have been picked up and reported by all major news organisations and then consumed by millions the next morning or on the evening news. Now the briefings are still reported by the news organisations but fewer and fewer people are listening.

It is a challenge for all governments. In Downing Street we now have what has been termed the 'nudge unit'. While much maligned by those in the media - maybe because they feel threatened - at least the government have recognised the need to find other ways to get their message through to the electorate. This is just the start.

Of course newspapers will still exist for the time being, media organisations will continue to report the news, but their absolute primacy in shaping public opinion will disappear. With this comes a challenge to all political parties. Like for Robert Gibbs and his time after the White House, it will take some adjusting.

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