September 25, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

How the Internet is proving Tip O’Neill wrong

How the Internet is proving Tip O’Neill wrong

The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill said “all politics is local.” It’s a mantra in politics, and is frequently at the core of Public Affairs programs. It makes sense: if you are appealing to a population that is defined by a geographical area (a voting district) you must keep the issues that are of importance to that specific area at top of mind when speaking to them.

But I think we’ve reached a point, because of the Internet, that candidates can no longer rely on this adage as gospel. We are so connected and it is so easy to share news items that while the need to appeal to voters on a local level remains, the ability to confine the messages directed at that local level is gone. And that has ramifications for candidates and elected leaders.

The Internet has, in many ways, facilitated and strengthened connections between districts and their representatives. It has made it easier to find out more about local issues. It’s dead easy to contact your legislators at any level–all you need is your zip code and address. (Back when I handled constituent queries, there were times when we need to consult complicated district maps to see in which district certain street addresses would fall.)

As always, there is another side to the coin. The very nature of the Internet means that we can get news and information from far-flung places. The local is still local–but the news of the local has global reach.

In the past, candidates running for president could carefully tailor their messages to appeal to certain demographics and audiences and then pack up and move on to the next state or audience. Now, they need to walk the tricky tightrope of appealing to a specific audience without alienating those who may be paying attention to the race elsewhere.

This balancing act has been on my mind for a while, particularly in the context of the discussion on earmarks. However, the issue that brought it front of mind for me today is a speech Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich gave yesterday in Florida. Florida’s “Space Coast” has been hard-hit by the loss of the space shuttle program, and Gingrich crafted a speech tailored to appeal to those highly paid engineers who are now unemployed. He proposed that by the end of his “[…] second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.” This drew cheers and applause from the audience–as it was designed to do.

There’s no crystal ball to look back and see how this issue would have played out before Internet connectivity was so common, but my guess is that: a) local press would have covered the speech and this committment to the space program extensively and Florida voters would remember his speech not only at the primary, but in the general election too; b) the three national nightly news programs *might* have mentioned it, either in passing or in a very short segment, soon to be forgotten by the general population; and c) it would be largely forgotten beyond Florida because the appeal of the story was so local. Candidates, to a certain extent, counted on this pattern.

Enter the Internet. This story is everywhere today, and the coverage ranges from “uh…what the heck?” to outright sarcasm. There are hashtags and the Tweets are flying. He is being called “Moon Base Newt.” Outside of Florida this…does not appear to be going over well.

Appeals to local communities are in many ways the lifeblood of politics, as Speaker O’Neill’s quote captures. But the audience is no longer local–and so politics is no longer “just” local either.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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