Opinion

Deputy PM Michael McCormack underestimates the power of headlines

The country's politicians are stuck in an old media time-warp, and are ignoring bad media headlines at their peril, warns comms expert Gerry McCusker.

In a (paywall) Media section interview for The Australian on April 23, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister (an ex-journalist) stated that his colleagues should ‘care less about bad news headlines’. In the article, he proclaimed: “Today’s front page news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping.”

This view patently betrays why too many of our ‘pollies’ and corporate brands are the victims of bad news stories rather than entities with the insights and technologies to counter – and dispel – knocking news narratives. Even savvy media types (ex journos and senior PRs), it seems, evidently don’t get reputation management 2.0 as, forgive the bluntness, they appear stuck in an old media time-warp.

As circulations fall, headlines ascend

What Michael’s perspective misses, is that the news environment has moved on, even for self-confessed newspaper junkies. Along with changes in the nation’s favourite dietary items (70% now prefer Chinese food – rather than fish suppers) the appetites of the media headline has changed a fair bit, too. Because while traditional circulation figures have plummeted, headline lethality has reached all-new heights. Let me explain…

The clickbait-headline-keyword-SEO cycle

Consider the power of search engines to store, regurgitate and frame the way people, places and things are perceived and understood by today’s headline-skimming, information-browsing, broad-brush interpreting public.

PR powerhouse Edelman’s Trust Barometer has researched that organic search finds are the most credible source of information for online users (beating traditional news outlets and social media channels by some way).

So, a shockingly bad headline that’s stored, indexed, tagged and instantly retrieved by a search engine can remain influential for years after it was originally published.

Shouldn’t that make for uncomfortable reading by people whose future depends on public perceptions and media polls? For example, Michael McCormack’s widely anointed ‘homophobic editorial’ of 25 years past is still referenced four stories down (in a Guardian article) as I scrolled down an eponymous Google search of our Deputy PM early in May. As was the Deputy’s unfavourably critiqued role in the 2017 ABS census bungle.

When the headline is the story

Sometimes, all that modern audiences will do is read a headline. A 2014 Washington Post article claimed 60% of the public read little else than the ‘header’. So when McCormack ‘tells pollies to ignore bad headlines’, there’s an unawareness of how damaging a misleading online news headline can now be, if it’s the only attention-grabbing item on any topic that’s read.

More, some of my savvy social media monitoring mates point out the scary amplification effects when one nasty, clickbait headline catalyses a slew of unfavourable social media comments and posts that can affect reputations within discreet media silos.

Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, said Blagden, Goebbels or Lenin (you see, search engines are unconcerned with the truth in how they attributes quotes, too). Repeat-click a headline often enough, and it performs better in search retrievals and becomes a perceived truth.

Crisis-hit entities need to use crafty and crafted search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to better balance negative narratives and ensure their media messages get priority perusal over many modern headlines which are, quite simply, malicious by design.

Bad headlines get better click rates

In crisis situations, it’s the critics and detractors who publish quicker, looser and often more frequently than conservative brand, corporate or political interests. More, the agenda activists will use clickbait conventions (like issue relevance, scare tactics, check-listing and outrageous claims) to grab the attention of online information skimmers. With multiple clicks comes enhanced SEO recency and long term relevance and influence.

So, the old media headline met up with clickbait and tags to become a reputation-shaping super-power. That’s surely why any good PR or reputation-minded politician simply ignores bad headlines at their peril.


Gerry McCusker is an online reputation specialist and owner of The Drill crisis simulation and training technology. 

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