The deep partisan divide is a growing challenge for communicators

The last couple of years have left America divided and on edge. Unfortunately, there is no sign of the intense political and cultural divisions healing anytime soon, despite calls for unity from leadership across sectors. There are many reasons to believe that polarization in the country will persist.

The deep partisan divide goes far beyond the political arena. It is prominently reflected in how people consume information and engage with brands. This presents a number of challenges for executives and communicators who are responsible for managing brands and protecting reputations of their companies and clients.

In this environment when partisan divisions have made their way into the news media, it is important to strategically think through the implications for communications initiatives that are targeted to reach stakeholders across the political spectrum, and consider a number of critical issues as companies develop communications and media relations strategies going forward.

No sign of media polarization abating

Americans are increasingly seeing and believing two opposing views of reality – what in many ways has been prompted by the unprecedented spread of disinformation and rise of alternative information ecosystems. For many, the result of the presidential election continues to be a divisive issue. CNN’s Brian Stelter described it as “two Americas with completely different assumptions and expectations and information sources.

Despite wide acknowledgement of the damaging role played by the media in driving polarization, current dynamics in the landscape suggest that we will not see meaningful positive changes any time soon.

While the amount of news coverage devoted to politics will likely decline now that the election and the impeachment are over, the tone of the conversation is unlikely to be less partisan. After all, both the public and the media are deeply divided on issues at the top of this year’s agenda – the pandemic, economy, climate change, and racial justice.

Moreover, news outlets continue to operate in an intensely competitive environment, where ratings, page clicks, and subscription numbers directly affect their bottom lines, and thus will be incentivized to press on with a strategy that prioritizes opinion-based content and emotional engagement with their audience.

“(This) is a marketplace that offers penalties for reporting the news but lots of rewards for indulging a consumer’s worst cravings,” wrote in his recent op-ed Chris Stirewalt, a long-time political editor at Fox News, who was recently fired in what The Daily Beast called “ideological purge.”

A notable example of the continued shift towards opinion-based content is a recent programming reshuffle at Fox News, which has seen many of its conservative viewers flee to right-wing upstarts like Newsmax and One America News during the 2020 election.

In an apparent effort to rebuild its audience, Fox News has expanded its weekday prime-time opinion programming from three hours to five; the changes include moving one of its marquee news anchors, Martha MacCallum, out of the key 7 p.m. time slot, and adding a satirical opinion show to 11 p.m. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch also said recently that Fox News would serve as “loyal opposition” to President Joe Biden, which will help boost the network’s ratings.

Liberal-leaning outlets are also likely to be under pressure to find new ways to sustain connection with their audiences, now that the major focus of their attention – Donald Trump – is no longer president. Both MSNBC and CNN already have seen a decline in viewers since their highs around Election Day.

At a time when Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments, these partisan information bubbles are also increasingly becoming budgetary, as more outlets erect paywalls. This makes it even more difficult for consumers to access a wide range of viewpoints and quality, fact-checked content. 

Newsrooms struggle on multiple fronts

Overall, newsrooms of top broadcast, print and digital media are going through tumultuous period, dealing with challenged business models, job cuts, changing leadership, and generational cultural battles between young reporters and old-school editors over the directions and goals of journalism, free speech, and the place of objectivity versus “deeper truth” in covering important issues.

The nation’s paper of record, The New York Times, is experiencing unprecedented levels of divisiveness and controversy inside its newsroom due to conflicts between management and staffers. And reflecting the national conversation about racial inequality, top executives said in a recent Diversity Report that the paper needs a fundamental culture change to become a better place to work, particularly for people of color.

Activist stakeholders add to pressure

Interestingly, shareholders are beginning to pay more attention to companies’ engagements with the media. For example, last year Home Depot and Omnicom investors pushed management to investigate whether the money they spent on social media advertisements may have helped spread hate speech and misinformation.

If divisiveness continues to proliferate, fueling real-world turmoil, we may potentially see such direct pressure from investors expand from digital advertising to media relations.

Another growing trend that will continue to present challenges is that it will be increasingly harder for companies to stay out of the conversations on divisive topics. Consumers, employees and investors are putting more and more pressure on companies to take a stand on societal matters and fully embody their touted social values beyond marketing strategies.

Silence used to be the default posture, but the calculus on whether it pays to stay silent or speak up has been rapidly shifting over the last several years. The principle of corporate social responsibility is now perceived much broader.

Paying close attention to what matters to relevant stakeholders and carefully calibrating messages against company’s values and purpose will be critical.

In fact, purpose – a company’s stated reason for being and its impact on the world – can be an effective filter through which difficult decisions concerning communications are made. It enables consistency in messaging to key audiences, and will help build dialogue and loyalty based on shared values. Trying to please everyone doesn’t work in a deeply divided and emotionally polarized environment.

In this situation, companies will also find significant value in consistent direct communication with their audiences through owned digital channels like social media, website, newsletters, etc. While owned content doesn’t have that coveted third-party credibility, it is critical to delivering the brand’s message on its own terms. 

Media relations is getting more challenging

Media relations will remain a valuable part of corporate communications tool kit this year, but engaging with the media is likely to get even harder in this complex media landscape.

Political divisions will continue to bleed in to every facet of life, and lines between opinion and news will remain blurred. Getting attention of overstretched reporters will remain challenging.

With public trust in traditional media at an all-time low, reputation and perceived credibility of a news outlet by target audiences is a factor communicators shouldn’t ignore.

Some companies are already weighing in risks of their reputation being damaged by association, as is evidenced by recent developments around Maria Bartiromo of Fox News.  This veteran anchor is at the center of a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit filed against Fox News by an election technology company over election fraud claims, and there are reports that political views are costing her CEO interviews.

So what can communications teams do to succeed in media relations despite all the challenges outlined above?

Here’re several recommendations: 

Navigating partisan divide requires awareness and intent. The key is to recognize political polarization as an issue that presents real risks to your business, and to be intentional in integrating it in to developing communication and media relations strategies.   

Vetting reporters is more important than ever. Before doing an interview it is critical to analyze journalist’s biases and reporting style. Is the reporter known for straightforward objective reporting or does he/she have a strong political agenda that consistently is infused in stories? Has the media outlet been implicated in spreading misinformation? Careful vetting will help to determine risks and benefits of engaging with a particular reporter on a particular topic.

Vetting yourself is equally important. Even a “safe” interview can become a reputational nightmare in this environment. That’s why it’s important to think through worst case scenarios and all potential topics that may be brought up by a reporter. The most obvious one is to understand the context around the interview – what is the public sentiment around your company and the issue that you’ll be discussing? Does your messaging credibly reflect your track record? The less obvious questions can be about your political contributions, financial support or affiliation with organizations and people, such as non-profits or prominent people in the news. Your internal policies and culture can also become a target in today’s environment. Curveballs can come from anywhere, so it’s important to carefully think them through.

Good message discipline, preparation for interviews, and media training are a must. With partisan opinion and editorialization prominently present in the media, there are many potential landmines and chances of an interview unexpectedly veering off course to discuss hot-button issues of the day. Equip your spokespeople with a plan and tools to stay in control of the interview before putting them in front of the media.