Restricting free speech the right way

In America, for the most part, you have every right to say what you like.  But you may understand that it’s not always a good idea.

In decrying the mass media reaction to to the school shooting in Connecticut, Matt Lewis floated the idea of media control.  It was an intentionally over-the-top suggestion to demonstrate absurdity, but he has a point.  Separating recent events from the discussion, how many times have you heard (or even used) the phrase “the 24-hour news cycle” when explaining some social phenomenon or another?  It’s why our politics have been reduced to sound-bite-driven partisan hackery, it’s why Mark Sanchez has regressed as a quarterback, and it’s why “crisis communication” has become a must-have asset for big businesses.

Mama Eltringham had a saying back in the day: “The more hurry, the less speed” – meaning the faster you try to get something done, the more you tend to mess up.  Things like accuracy and thoughtful context fly out the window pretty quick when a media outlet relentlessly focused on scooping the other guys.  But accuracy and quality are essential elements for a press, so if they are flying out the window, someone will eventually come along and slam it shut.

Unimaginative libertarians hear the suggestion of “regulation” and bristle instantly.  But that can take many forms.  In the 1940s, it took the form of the Hutchins Commission, which famously outlined the duties of a  free and responsible press.  That commission (which was initiated by publishers and academics) sprang from concerns that while there were more and more people relying on the press, control of the mass media was falling into the hands of a few key players.  The key impetus behind the commission, though, was a fear that these concerns were the types of problems that, left unattended, would eventually result in rollbacks of the First Amendment.  The Hutchins Commission’s stab at self-regulation has now been taught for decades in Journalism departments across the country.

Today’s press faces the twin challenges of media consolidation and the ubiquity of information channels, including new/social media.  (The popularity of these new channels, incidentally, is a direct result of the lack of trust citizens have in the mainstream press.)  And of course there are the various strings attached to that dreaded “24-hour news cycle.”

Rollbacks on press freedom would not be good public policy, of course.  But since when has the quality of a policy ever prevented a knee-jerk implementation?  Federal law books alone have pages and pages of dumb or antiquated laws that aren’t removed for fear of public outcry.  In the right environment, media regulations could be in play – not today or tomorrow, but a bit farther down the path the press is currently on.

Before that day comes, major media outlets would be wise to put their heads together to think about how they are handling their freedom of the press, before some else thinks about it for them.

Making online/mobile strategies count

Matt Lewis had me back on his podcast today, and we discuss the balance campaigns must strike between different tech tactics.  Specifically, we chat about Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott’s very deliberate decision to avoid text messaging in favor of email to announce his running mate.  In this case, the Scott campaign decided that emails were more valuable to their campaign strategy than mobile numbers.  (Given Florida’s elderly population, it was probably a wise choice.  Also facto in the power of email’s reach – John Boehner actually sent an email update to his supporter list to draw attention to a tweet.  It sounds redundant but it’s actually the best way to make the tweet gets seen.)

As Matt and I discussed, the rumor from Scott’s consultants is that he is not averse to spending money – so this was an educated decision.

I’m excited to see the implementation of good mobile strategy – and text messaging is going in some exciting directions.  But too often, the people with resources to burn don’t stop to think through their online strategy.  This is especially true with issue or candidate campaigns which use tools like Facebook for messaging, but really don’t know what to do with their 10,000-person follower list after everyone clicks the like button.

To use an old-school campaign example, imagine going door to door for a candidate.  When the voter opens the door, you ask, “Hey, are you going to vote for my guy?”  The voter says, “Yup!” and the conversation ends.  You don’t take down their name, address, or phone number, or even ask if they’d like a lawn sign.  The same is true if think taking action on an issue you care about ends when you send an email to your Member of Congress.  Chances are, that email will be counted and deleted because the staff knows how easy it is for any crazy person to send them an email.  (That’s why advanced follow up is always recommended.)

No matter how advanced your tactic, if it isn’t applied with some measurable and impactful result, it’s a waste of time and resources.