Public Relations is one of the vaguest and most misunderstood elements of the marketing and advertising industry. Silently, however, PR is one of the most powerful shapers of wide-scale public opinion. Most day to day decisions from the products we buy to the movies we watch has been shaped by “attention merchants”. The media industry is responsible for spreading the news, views, and information that shape consumer’s opinion and action.

This impact has become even more pronounced since the advent of the internet and social media. Managing your brands online and offline public image is now a vital part of business. Today, an effective public relations strategy must include methods to not just handle, but also manipulate the media in order to control your brand’s image or increase brand awareness.


The Attention Economy

In today’s society, people do not think much anymore. Instead they merely consume. More news, more views and more opinions which aren’t theirs become gorged at will. While the information and internet age has opened education up to the masses, it hasn’t thought us the art of critical thinking. Many people today do not possess the ability to sort all of these opinions, separating the good from the bad, and fact from fiction. In an era of distraction, people spend more time scrolling through their phones rather than stepping back and analyzing what they’re seeing.

As a result, the media determines to a large scale our thoughts and the lens which we view the world. The Media calls people to action stirring and evoking intense emotions. Just one tweet or viral news piece can create a storm of publicity. This makes or breaks a brand/person. In marketing, knowing how to utilize the media and manage public relations to spread your brand message is an often under-appreciated skill. Some CEO’s and business leaders have a natural penchant for generating publicity such as Michael O Leary, Richard Branson, and Donald Trump.


So, How Do You Get Attention?

I saw a documentary on Netflix recently “Get me Roger Stone”, which pretty much encapsulated what the public relations industry is all about. Roger Stone was heavily involved in the promotion of President Trump’s successful election campaign. He was his main adviser. Like many successful PR agents, his main tactics were using shock appeal to attract as much attention as possible. This kept everyone thinking and talking about Donald Trump.

The marketing landscape these days is like a yellow brick road full of multiple routes to explore. Yes, you still have the traditional mediums like print, radio, and television. But nowadays online mediums have surged in popularity such as social media which are much more powerful due to their usage numbers. With the introduction of all these new media outlets, capturing attention for brands is paradoxically both easier and harder at the same time. Online avenues bring the ease of message release into a domain for the mass audience to view. However getting these people to consciously see your message is very difficult in an era of information overload and the deliberate tuning out of advertisements.


Fake News and Virality


“The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected—rural dwellers or the urban poor—who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate.” Tim Wu - Author of “The Attention Merchants”


Clickbait is a term synonymous with the online industry and a topic which I covered on a previous blog. The online world is full of content put out solely to achieve that click or moment of attention. It’s the reason why the world we live in has been described as the attention economy. Every person and business is fighting for precious crumbs of attention.

In business, attention is money. The more eyes you have on your brand the better. Trying to create brand awareness in such competitive times is increasingly difficult. In an attempt to stay relevant, most companies use advertising but increasingly they’re finding advertising needs to be covert. Think of the Instagram post by that social media influencer featuring a branded product or that nice write up in the paper. Also, observe how both neglect to mention how much the publisher received for promoting these pieces.


The Art of Mis-information

Many companies use middlemen or PR agents to spread positive news about the company. They also use them to populate false news and surveys about competitors and/or their products. The infamous company press release can often be an embellishment of current performance to mask the truth and keep shareholders investing. Just recently, I read an article about a well-known company’s performance where sales had risen slightly but profit fell. One paper published in the headline that sales were up at the company creating a perception that it was doing well. Another published that profits were down with insinuations that the company was trading badly.

In these moments, it’s important to take a step back, especially if you’re a trader. Many articles are written by marketers looking to either sell a story, sell a company or sell themselves and gain some of that delicious attention that is going around.

As a side note, The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu and “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday are two great books for anyone looking to learn more about the attention economy and “epic scramble to get inside our heads”.


Increasing Awareness with Sensationalism


“Things must be negative but not too negative. Hopelessness, despair—these drive us to do nothing. Pity, empathy—those drive us to do something, like get up from our computers to act. But anger, fear, excitement, or laughter—these drive us to spread. They drive us to do something that makes us feel as if we are doing something when in reality we are only contributing to what is probably a superficial and utterly meaningless conversation.” 
― Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator


Every time we go online or look at a paper, we’re taking onboard opinions from others and constructing our own views from it. Today, however, the inundation of so much information means that people rarely think anymore and merely consume. A hive mind develops where everyone thinks the same and cannot cultivate an original thought outside the main “Influencer”.

In the online economy, blog posts containing ads are measured by clicks which receive money per ad impression. This creates a conflict of interest scenario where many online media and websites aim to generate as many clicks on an article as possible to keep people on site. This creates a race to the bottom. Writers no longer create articles to add value but to support people’s already ingrained beliefs.


Provoking Anger To Capture Ears & Eyes

People get played against each other for page views. One of the most powerful predictors of virality is how much anger an article provokes. The newspaper industry has been aware of this for years (especially the tabloids).  Every article and news story exists to elicit a response in the viewer. Anger provides the greatest reaction but also extreme stories. Maybe this explains why “Dark Tourism” is so popular among a subset of the population. While people share inspiring and happy stories, stories provoking anger and shock consume attention.

Some writers and journalists have learned the art of being as nasty as possible to create a reaction and suck all eyes upon them. People find a fair and balanced opinion to be boring. People who agree with you love the reaction and people who don’t hate the reaction. Reaction garners comments and comments equals more page views. Think of some of the most well know Irish commentators such as Eamon Dunphy and Joe Brolly. Its all about the headline!


Looking Beyond The Headline

Next time you’re reading a headline, an article, or watching a programme, you should always ask what is the creator’s agenda before “buying” the information. If you’re in business, it’s equally important to understand the shapers of public opinion and the judgemental nature of people today.


“In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.” 
― Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator