Mainstream media can still carry quite a punch


May 11, 2018

In less than two months since the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted, the agency credited with President Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016 was abandoned by its clients, declared bankruptcy and closed down.  The lava of front-page newspaper headlines, magazine cover stories and TV news soundbites, was too hot to handle for the UK-based data mining and communications agency which had been credited with the accolade of redefining the advertising industry.

With its reputation in tatters, Cambridge Analytica’s last spasms could only spew a few Tweets threatening the world’s behemoth media establishments with law suits if they didn’t stop breaking news stories and exposes about the firm’s alleged malpractices in political campaigns and the illegal ways it used to harvest data of 87 million Facebook users.

The heat was on as early as the first media reports on the subject surfaced and was getting hotter at the top with Alexander Nix, the ex-CEO of the now defunct agency being the first victim of the media scrutiny that didn’t leave a stone unturned or a source untapped in order to hammer the message of transparency across.

And in an almost identical fashion, a few months prior to the Cambridge Analytica short-lived saga, international Public Relations firm Bell Pottinger had signed its own death warrant when it decided to employ unethical social media practices which backfired to signal its corporate demise on a global scale. In South Africa, where this scandal unfolded, the mainstream media’s role in exposing the scandal was instrumental to rallying the public’s support and kept the scandal in the headlines until Bell Pottinger eventually bowed under the pressure, acrimoniously non the less.

Lack of regulation and understanding of where the social media bandwagon was heading to, have been the main factors overfeeding the beast’s engine for years with ego, arrogance, defiance and data rendering it a bland manipulator of consciousness, a tool for unaccountable defamation and an instrument of unchecked disrepute.

If a week in politics is too long, then two months under fire from international media is simply unsustainable, especially when a company is unprepared to deal with a crisis of that magnitude, or simply too arrogant to realise that nothing lasts for ever; with the exception, – perhaps – of the undisputable power of mainstream media.

Not too long ago, this power had been put into question; media analysts wondered whether print journalism had completed its cycle, Presidents turned to Twitter handles to stay in touch with their electoral base, and advertisers siphoned their ad dollars into social media.

Well, who said you can’t hold back a river? What we are currently looking at is quite a different picture, where print journalism remains the only real – and not fake – channel for news and information; the President’s tweeter appeal is fading fast -if not being laughed at –  and advertisers are increasingly questioning Facebook’s ethics and the credibility and effectiveness of their online campaigns by significantly reducing or withdrawing their social media marketing budgets.

The arrival of social media was meant to be an evolution of sorts, at a time when an industry is gradually reshaped in order to meet changing consumer demands while keeping up with the advent of technology. Instead, the pace of the change turned it into a revolution, where the advent of technology and the bank accounts of Silicon Valley heavy weights dictated demand, as opposed to addressing it.

It had to be stopped, before it grew out of control; and what better way to do that than the victim and the underdog exacting its sweet revenge on its perpetrator and dynast; against the odds.

And as is the case with each revolution, the next day is bound to be difficult, especially if those who started it, end up in the losing side.

The writer is Managing Director of international advocacy, branding and communications consultancy Leidar and author of Back to the Future of Marketing – PRovolve or Perish. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios

Special to Gulf News – published in Gulf News May 8 2018.