The Guardian’s Data Blog recently compared Russell Brand’s reach with that of the newspaper attempting to discredit him, The Sun. The findings were hardly a surprise, and merely confirmed a trend that we have been talking about at Borkowski.do for a long time.
Where in years gone by the favour of The Sun newspaper was carefully coveted by the political class, today falling foul of the redtop is of little concern to minor celebrities. Despite numerous attempts to frame public discourse about class over the last year – with splashes ranging from PlebGate to the most recent spat with Brand – the transparency offered by the fora of social media has triumphed over attempts at manipulation of public opinion every time, offering the individuals concerned a platform to argue their case, and the public the opportunity to discuss matters and make up their own minds.
With an incredible social media following dwarfing the reach of every UK newspaper, Brand has been able to communicate his position regarding his rented accommodation, and has directly invited the public to decide for themselves. They did : in the form of a viral hashtag that has seen The Sun ridiculed for the premise of its campaign, #TheSunLogic.
Brand’s YouTube response to the Sun showed resolve: “Don’t worry, it’s just a story. Everything is just a story, so if we create a different story, it can alter reality”. Whatever you think of the man he has a point here. Unlike other creatures, humans are able to conceive of their past, their future, and hypothetical situations – key components that make up narrative. The words ‘history’ and ‘story’ are linked by the concept of narrative, and – from the Bible to the news rag – there has always been big business in determining which stories will steer the course of our societies. The Roman Empire, in one of the longest-lasting PR moves of all time, adopted Christianity as its narrative force. Constantine was aware that control of the narrative is the key to power; control of the narrative has dictated the rise and fall of almost every empire before or since..
In the 20th century, the gradual ebbing away of religion in the West saw a lot of this storytelling power conceded to mass media. Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, politicians would form dubiously sycophantic relationships with media outlets in the hopes of swaying popular opinion, and, ultimately, votes. Though we still see such allegiances today, their power has undoubtedly been weakened. Where once power could be measured in viewing figures and sales, today, real currency is contained in our ability to maintain people’s attention against a backdrop of information-overload. Influence reigns supreme.
Though anathema for some, there is a reason why Brand has 8.7m Twitter followers and continues to fill auditoriums for his stand-up routines – he is the perfect Marmite brand. Loved or hated, Brand possesses a magnetism that draws people’s attention and keeps them coming back for more.
As one Guardian headline boasted: “In many ways this comedian is more influential than the [Sun] newspaper”, and they wouldn’t be far wrong. Whilst sales of the Sun continue to dwindle, Brand holds sway. As he affirms in one YouTube video, he’s “just standing there to get the cameras to come”. This is why Brand is a threat to them: he just doesn’t seem to need them or heed them in the way they would like him to. As for negative criticism, it’s just “flack”, and “a flack attack is just a big lot of noise…then it’s gone away again”. He knows the rules of the game and can play it well.
So what lessons are there to learn for the big media outlets?
- You can’t change the tide
The state of flux arising from social media has produced a number of weird and wonderful hybrids in the media world, and there are opportunities for the newspapers to evolve here, too. It is time to adapt or die.
- Collaboration is key
Some news channels are getting the message. In a climate of strong feelings of social injustice, the public has become increasingly intolerant of narrative-framing by news agencies. This has been highlighted by the rise of live streaming feeds throughout the Ferguson protests. Some news channels (Al Jazeera, Russia Today), aware of the large audiences (up to 40,000 live viewers at any one time, and 1.5m views daily on some feeds), have already started to buy footage directly from the live streamers such as James Woods.
- It’s time to taste your own medicine
Perhaps a bit of reverse engineering of the old political formula would do the media world some good. They need only take a side glance at their cousins in the publishing industry to see that a taste of their own medicine might just be sweet: it’s a model that seems to have worked rather well for Penguin RandomHouse and Zoella this month.