One thing many people all over the world can relate to is being constantly overwhelmed by a torrent of information and images generated by the media. Lebanon is no exception; on top of the international media we are exposed to, the mushrooming of domestic media outlets has been a major feature of society over the past 15 years or so.
At least 10 privately owned television stations, 15 privately owned radio stations, daily newspapers of every color and political bent, weeklies, monthlies and social media channels, all led to a situation where average citizens feel regularly overcome by the volume of information assailing them.
However, as some might be surprised to discover, this issue does not merely affect viewers. It is also an occupational hazard of Lebanon’s politicians. With legislative elections just around the corner, this matter becomes of particular relevance to them; newscasts, breaking news, talk shows on TV and radio and regional and international TV stations, all work together to create serious challenges Lebanese politicians have to come to terms with in this critical time.
If they don’t take maximum advantage of this media bonanza, their opponents will, and that would deprive them of a politician’s prime asset: the lime light on center stage.
On the other hand, if they do take such advantage, they run the real risk of becoming stale, unexciting and therefore unnewsworthy in the eyes of constituencies of viewers and listeners.
In a recent Foreign Policy article entitled “Where Have All the George Washingtons Gone?” the following contention is made: “Greatness in the presidency requires a certain amount of distance, detachment, even mystique. […] America’s 24/7, in-your-face media is relentless — and presidents contribute to it by believing they need to keep ahead of the curve and project their presence constantly.”
One need only look around to realize that this applies to Lebanon as well. Indeed, politicians face a situation where exposure is both a risk and opportunity. How, then, does one avoid overexposure yet maintain presence? Furthermore, what can be done to ensure the effective and impactive communication of important messages and the preservation of a credible public persona?
Don’t confuse quantity with quality
First and foremost, it is important to distinguish quantity from quality. Public figures in general, and politicians in particular, must always remember that they are subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Indeed, generating an endless torrent of statements, interviews, tweets and speeches is not equivalent to effective communication. There is no doubt that in this day and age, directly communicating with one’s constituents via different social networks is an unavoidable must.
However, this should not be done erratically or excessively. Many Lebanese politicians that have taken to the use of Twitter and initially benefited from the goodwill garnered by their attempt to reach out to the public have quickly suffered the negative, discrediting effects of being overly communicative.
Indeed, the matter has turned into a source of public amusement, with the media keeping track of who is “leading” the Twitter race. In a study published by Think Media Labs last month, it is stated that a minister “who was in 6th place in June with 44 tweets, has jumped to be most active on Twitter during the month of July with a sum of 226 tweets”. Media presence must be thought through, sustained and consistent; communication is always good but it’s about the “how” and the “when”, not just the “how much”. Sometimes more is less.
The medium of choice
Politicians will do well to identify the outlets and means of communication best suited to the message they are looking to communicate, and focus on them rather than drift in every direction available. Practically speaking, they should identify the TV stations, radio stations, online media channels or other means of communication that are most likely to create the desired impact.
Traditional media outlets and social media websites are not all-purpose platforms that can invariably accommodate and effectively transmit messages of all kinds. This is an important point to keep in mind, especially in light of the overabundance of outlets available in Lebanon. Once the outlet has been selected, politicians must be acutely aware of the target group they are primarily addressing (youth, women, etcetera,) and make their choices accordingly.
A fitting example here would be Queen Rania of Jordan, who has earned quite a reputation for herself as being media savvy. In addition to successfully making use of conventional media outlets, she consciously endeavors to select the means of communication best suited for her audience when she has a specific message to relay. For instance, in a bid to combat stereotypes and prejudice against the Middle East, the Queen took to YouTube by launching her own channel calling upon young people from all over the world to upload videos discussing stereotypes they may have of Muslims and Arabs.
Versatile yet consistent
Whatever the means chosen, politicians ought to endeavor to be consistent across their communication. By this, it is meant that they should avoid repeating themselves without appearing like they are changing position. This might seem tricky at first, but it can be done by focusing on a variety of complex issues relevant to the public, while maintaining loyalty to one’s fundamental political or ideological stance. It could be foreign policy on one occasion, the economy on another, education on a third, and so on, thereby making the speaker appear informed and multi-faceted. Although it is a dominant practice in Lebanon for politicians to be chronically inconsistent and avoid addressing topics of actual relevance to average citizens, we can still set benchmarks in the hope of one day reaching them.
A compelling example here would be former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, dubbed the “Iron Lady”, who made a political career out of coupling undeniable competence and well-roundedness with a firm and consistent ideological stance.
Though a controversial figure, few would argue that Thatcher did not possess intimate knowledge of a diversity of topics, in addition to projecting a strong sense of being in control as the leader of both a party and a major country. Our politicians could stand to learn a great deal from the way Thatcher exhibited versatility while maintaining consistency.
It is a well-known fact that our local political scene is infamous for its politicians and their sudden, flagrant shifts of stance. Many a Lebanese political figure has suffered through the backlash and ridicule caused by a change of opinion or position that went unexplained to the public. Others have earned undesirable reputations for themselves by making contradictory statements or publicly claiming a certain belief or value one day, and behaving in a manner that is completely at odds with it the next (a common occurrence during election season).
Doing any of the above is an almost guaranteed way of losing credibility in the public eye. Despite the fact that this does not seem to dissuade those who do it, one thing a politician should guard against is loss of credibility, where recovery most often proves to be exceedingly difficult.
Although we still have a long way to go before reaching this level of collective political maturity, one can still hope that candidates will rely less on demagogy and rhetoric and start communicating clear political visions, as well as proposing programs with a set of key performance indicators that constituents can measure progress against and hold their elected representatives accountable for should they fall short.
There is no doubt that the temptation to make media appearances is sometimes hard to resist, especially on the eve of an election season that is sure to use the media as its main arena. Yet striking the right media balance is only half the battle.
The other half, often more challenging than the first, is to convey the right messages to the right audiences and to successfully project the desired image, bearing in mind that 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal.