No Longer in Control of the Message

In The Accidental Guerilla David Kilcullen, counterinsurgency theorist and adviser to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War troop surge of 2007, wrote of the impossibility for governments and organisations to achieve “message unity” due to the fact that “under globalised conditions the media space is a domain, an ecosystem, or even a battlespace, filled with dozens of independent, uncoordinated, competing, and conflicting entities rather than a single actor or audience…almost all of them outside the control of governments and media corporations.”

It’s a problem that Brian Cowen didn’t even attempt to address during his unfortunate spell as Taoiseach.  When he implored the nation to get behind him and “trust the good instincts of our politicians” he didn’t understand or seem to want to understand what he was up against.

Irish people had shown an uncommon level of trust in their politicians up until the unravelling of the Celtic Tiger, when it became apparent that the country had been dining out on a German overdraft from 2003 to 2007.  Once the game was up no amount of spinning by government public relations consultants was going to be a match for a disgruntled and betrayed public who were IT savy and getting used to the new social media tools of Twitter, My Space, and Facebook.  They no longer controlled of the message; someone else did.

In How Dov Seidman, a management consultant who specialises in designing ethical business practices, writes that in the United States  “40% of teens and young adults share their opinions during viewing , right afterwards, or on the same day they see a film…Instant communication can build an almost immediate national consensus about a film, creating an instant hit or dooming it to a quick DVD release almost before opening weekend is over…in other words you no longer define yourself in the market; the market defines you.”

In the recent Irish presidential election campaign Seán Gallagher presented himself as an independent candidate and downplayed his history as an active member of Fianna Fáil, the party whose actions many hold responsible for Ireland’s current economic woes.

Gallagher was coasting to victory three days out from the election before being ambushed on RTÉ’s Frontline by Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness about a cheque that Gallagher allegedly received from a business man for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser.  This coupled with a “tweet” which came from a twitter account seemingly linked to Martin McGuinness’s presidential campaign put Gallagher under inordinate pressure on live television and he buckled.  It was later discovered that the twitter account was not connected to either McGuinness or Sinn Féin.

It’s obvious that a decision was taken in the early stages of Gallagher’s campaign to practically bury his Fianna Fáil background.  In today’s information age it’s virtually impossible to suppress anything and sooner or later Gallagher’s active involvement with Fianna Fáil was bound to come to the fore.  More transparency from the outset allied to what was otherwise an impressive and positive campaign would probably have seen Gallagher home.

Richard Moore, his press advisor, can moan after the toothpaste is out of the tube about the tweet being “earth shattering,” but once Gallagher hit the front the next to unbearable scrutiny of his past was inevitable, and the coyness about his political heritage inexcusable.  That tweet may have been in fifth-class mail but it was going to arrive sometime.  It was enough to sway the Irish electorate, who got busy on Twitter and Facebook, and Gallagher having been destined for a long stay on the big screen was relegated to an early DVD release.


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