What Election 2016 Should Be Teaching Us About Messaging


Setting aside whatever your feelings are about the issues, candidates, or campaigns, the events of this election year should be teaching us all a lot about effective messaging in the social media era. Basically, that historian Daniel Boorstin was right.

Back in 1961, Boorstin published “The Image: A Guide To Pseudo-Events In America”, a short history of the evolution of public relations in America during the 20th century. This was after the first televised presidential campaign, and Boorstin was particularly inspired by the “sweaty lip” Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960. In his book, he identifies and outlines the “pseudo-event” – a reported-on event that is only important because it has been reported on – and how it could be used in the future to blur the lines between legitimate news reporting and entertainment.

Sound at all familiar? It should.

A pseudo-event, by its very definition, doesn’t exist. It’s a MacGuffin.

Boorstin uses the example of a formerly successful hotel that has fallen on hard times and needs to turn things around. They could repaint, fix up the rooms, modernize everything, get the dead raccoons out of the kitchen, fire the rude staff. That takes time and money. Instead, they hire a public relations firm.

The PR firm suggests organizing an event where the local community recognizes and appreciates the historic prestige of the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, hasn’t changed a bit. But the manufactured event goes off, the papers report on it, and – this is the important part – people start talking about the reporting. Then the newspapers turn around and report on how people are talking about the hotel.

See the slight of hand there? Next thing you know, the hotel has days of free advertising, and the dead raccoons are still in the kitchen.

The original recognition event, as well as the “community buzz”, are pseudo-events. They’re vaporware. Built on nothing but a perceived sense that other people are paying attention. And once people are paying attention, the attention becomes the story.

That was half a century ago. Today, we have the pseudo-event battleground of social media, as we’ve all seen this year in the election. A few seconds, a quick 140 characters, and suddenly there’s something for people to talk about. And comment on. And then talk about the comments. And comment on the talk. And so on and so forth. The medium becomes the message.

I’m not going to get into the ethics or morality of pseudo-events. Personally, I’m a substance guy. I’d much rather sell the goods than polish a cow patty, and in my experience, having the truth on your side is always ultimately the better play. But leveraging pseudo-events does work, and works very well. And as communicators, we can’t afford to ignore that. But first we have to recognize them.

Boorstin outlined eight characteristics of pseudo-events that allow them to drown out other forms of messaging. They are:

1. They are more dramatic and suspenseful. They are not spontaneous, but highly preplanned, and engineered specifically to generate anticipation and capture attention. Pseudo-events are designed to get people to pick sides. Think of the classic Steve Jobs Apple product roll out event – that’s a pseudo-event.

2. They are built for easy, vivid dissemination. Today, we would say that they are designed to be viral. You don’t have to be smart or informed to get them. They jump out at you, are easy to grasp and retell, and do not require much (if any) thought or interpretation. A pseudo-event is a prepackaged gumdrop in primary colors, selling itself as organic fresh fruit.

3. The relationship between the pseudo-event and the underlying reality is ambiguous at best. This is a really important point. Did that candidate really mean what they just said? What does it MEAN? That lack of clarity – irony, in the classic definition of the word – is what makes the story interesting. A pseudo-event intentionally engineers that ambiguity to get people talking.

4. A pseudo-event costs money to create. Many people and organizations have a stake in making it successful, and so do so. Yes, any one of us can Tweet for free – but there is a reason why not every Tweet is creating a news story. It only really works when powerful interests have skin in the game, and work together to keep the ball moving forward down the field.

5. Pseudo-events are designed to be more intelligible than reality. While that may seem at first glance to contradict point #3, the opposite is true: by making the story more simple and graspable than the actual situation, more ambiguity is created rather than less. People are not reacting to the underlying reality at all. But they’re doing so because the manufactured story is easier to tell and believe.

6. Pseudo-events are more social and convenient to witness. Probably more than any other of these characteristics, this one has been the driving force for Election 2016 messaging across the board. A story is more likely to be retold (and believed) if there’s a social reinforcement component, and if you don’t have to go very far to participate in it. Is there really a more perfect example of that than modern social media?

7. Being “informed” means being up to speed on the latest pseudo-events. Did you hear what that candidate said this morning? Are you keeping up with the latest releases from that popular news website? Do you agree with what that forecasting website said about the electoral importance of North Carolina? Pseudo-events are essentially narcissistic creatures. They are meant to convey the sense that you need them.

8. They are designed to create more pseudo-events exponentially. Again, not a hard one to see in Election 2016. When a candidate reacts to a story, and then reacts to the reporting of the reaction, and then more stories spin off in different directions in a messaging forest fire, that is what’s happening: pseudo-events are exponentially generating.

Boorstin has a lot more to say in the book, and I’m just scratching the surface here. It’s worth reading.

Again, I’m not weighing in on the election here, and while I have my own opinions, I’m also not commenting on the moral and ethical implications of what is clearly a manipulative messaging practice. Like it or not, however, pseudo-events work. Everyone does it, and in fact it may turn out that this is the only real technique that can effectively punch through social media noise. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, for those of us who tell stories professionally and ply our trade by getting people to listen, no effective tool can be left on the floor to rust. And when that tool is as sharp and useful as this one, that’s doubly true. If you can use it without chopping your arm off in the process (and this election year has already found a few bloody limbs scattered about), then best of luck to you.

Just try to avoid being on the receiving end. That particular blade is very, very sharp.

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