Donald Trump didn’t create the media environment that helped fuel his rise to the White House. But his successful exploitation of it means that campaigns will have to grapple with a new set of media variables for years to come.
Now, as I’m sure you’ve heard, we are in the midst of a social media revolution, and its impact has been momentous. As the president-elect demonstrated, social media allows campaigns to almost instantaneously break into the news cycle by issuing public statements as Facebook posts, or comments on actions by an opponent as tweets. Having an established social media voice increases a candidate’s chances of getting that reaction included in news coverage.
Meanwhile, television news itself is becoming viewed more and more frequently through smartphones, laptops and tablets. Last year, the American Press Institute found that Millennials, those aged 18-34, now get 74 percent of their news online.
That convergence between the digital world and what’s being reported on TV, and through print and online publications, is illustrated by how quickly the media became hooked on Trump. From the moment he entered the race, Trump’s penchant for astonishing, often explosive statements made him “great copy.”
Coverage of Trump intersected seamlessly between his tweets, rally speeches, even major policy events. Whatever the format, it was treated as “breaking news,” featured prominently in live cable news shows and endlessly analyzed by pundits. Rewarded with nearly constant news coverage, Trump’s campaign rallies and tweets became his primary communication channels.
By Election Day, Trump had received an estimated $5.2 billion in free media, according to the Oregon-based mediaQuant.
Most candidates won’t be able to garner the kind of attention that Trump did. But they should understand that none of their communication is siloed. Social media posts and speeches at rallies join the same stream of information in news reporting — because they’re happening live.
The need for instant information means that news media, particularly television news, will continue to focus first on the sensational and have little time to go beyond shallow reporting.
Digital media has been an absolute tidal wave washing over the way we access information and communicate. That wave is not receding.
Dave Helfert teaches political and public affairs communication at Johns Hopkins and George Mason Universities. He has been a television news reporter, and communication director for the Texas House of Representatives, in the Clinton Administration and in Congress. He has also written and produced advertising in more than 140 political campaigns.