- The two major parties have allowed factions within their ranks to fracture each’s ideological framework, opening the door for opposing actors within the house to operate and thrive.
- Political communication also faces a significant uphill climb due to the erosion of the traditional media landscape’s influence and the rise of incongruent social media platforms.
- Political communications professionals must adapt and evolve to meet the times and the audience.
For anyone in the political arena, the last four years were a lot. While Trump’s supporters were encouraged by the opportunity to have someone willing to go against the grain in 1600 Pennsylvania, those whose jobs focus on the institutions of government were placed into a challenging position.
Breaking the norm is a great campaign message, but it is more of a hindrance when it comes to operations and longevity. Political communication was already facing an uncertain future before the Trump era.
Social media platforms, changing traditional media dynamics, and a growing sub-Millennials-Millennial demographic on their own have led to diametric shifts and combined have brought about significant uncertainty. So what is the future of political communication, and will it ever return to its previous form?
Any conversation of political communication today is led by one word: polarization. The American populace is more divided today than at any other point in modern history. Polarization is not a problem caused by Trump, but rather the driving force for his ascendancy and an ideology focused on singular supremacy to continue after its leader is de-platformed.
The two major parties have allowed factions within their ranks to fracture each’s ideological framework, opening the door for opposing actors within the house to operate and thrive. These fractures have meant that it is no longer a fait accompli that the core message for a Republican candidate is to reduce the size of government.
Now, it is just as likely that that candidate may lead off with an ideology based on conspiracy theories or nationalist views. And this is not only a Republican problem. Democrats are constantly challenged by those who subscribe to a further left position on health care issues and economic recovery mechanisms.
And though these internal fractures are challenging to deal with, they are even more so as an external communicator trying to build a narrative or a strategy focused on reaching across demographics.
Without a broader consideration for polarization, political communication is seen as a partisan or short-sighted action. It doesn’t meet the moment or capture the perspective of the party as a whole. While, yes, the communication can break through without a full appreciation of the inside baseball knowledge, practitioners must be aware of it and not dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant or fringe.
Erosion of Traditional Media
Political communication also faces a significant uphill climb due to the erosion of the traditional media landscape’s influence and the rise of incongruent social media platforms. No longer can you embargo a news-worthy announcement to break it on the evening news or the front page of the major print outlet.
That story must be built with the dynamic forces of the major social media products in mind. Though the work undertaken by each platform’s founders to facilitate consumption of information at a more rapid, real-time clip, the ability of a communicator to build a narrative is limited and will face opposition from the jump.
Social media empowers every user with the ability to “create news.” While this might not be troublesome for personal updates for family and friends, at specific points, especially in the democratic process, there has to be a valued judgment made on the content’s trustworthiness.
Social media doesn’t just encourage but rather implores users to focus less on the scope of what you are posting. Instead, you are posting and engaging (the “post now, a post always” strategy vs. strategic social engagement plan).
By focusing more on the constant stream of engagement rather than its content, the opportunity is wide open for the promulgation and dissemination of less than truthful information, including the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
For political communicators, social media does provide a vehicle for broad message promulgation. You can reach audiences with less investment of time or capital than might have been required previously and with greater precision.
So, the question remains: is there a future for political communications? And if so, what does it look like?
In short, yes, there is a future for political communications and those who dabble in it. But, the experiences gleaned from years of activities likely will not provide the level of insight they once did. That past does not meet the moment brought about by growing polarization and tools readily available to foment division. So we political communications professionals must adapt and evolve to meet the times and the audience. Only time will tell if we are successful.
Seth Palmer graduate of North Carolina State University with a BA in Political Science. He has been recognized with numerous fellowships, including NLC North Carolina, the Truman National Security Project, and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. He regularly presents on advocacy, lobbying, and communications topics and currently serves as a faculty member of the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Mr. Palmer is a seasoned public affairs professional with a passion for communications. For more than a decade, he has used his skills and experience to translate engagement into action for public and private sector entities. He currently serves as the Director of Strategic Communications for NP Strategy, a strategic communications firm with North and South Carolina operations. He also serves as Founder and CEO of Longleaf Public Affairs, a communications training and advisory firm. Seth spends his free time with his wife and their daughter while continuing his quest to start his own barbecue sauce company.