Theory Junkie: Political Communication


I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore McNair’s definitions of Political Communication.

McNair is the author of the series “An Introduction to Political Communication“.

I was introduced to this author by my course leader Pam Williams during a dissertation seminar. Herself a Political Communication Master, she guided me into essentially juxtaposing my entire dissertation hypothesis with McNair’s work.

In the book’s 2nd edition, we are first given a brief history of political communication in the US. I found that quite interesting. Turns out, it is a spin-off of corporate communication, and much like PR’s own history, it traces its roots back to Ivy Lee and Bernays in the dawn of the 20th century as a means to manage public opinion on war. Interestingly enough, since 1932, PR consultants have held “one or more seats on the central board of virtually every presidential candidate” and with the creation of Campaigns Inc. in 1933, the political communication industry has legitimised itself into being instrumental to every politician’s successful mandate or campaign.

McNair describes two main methods for practicing Political Communication – Political Advertising and Political Public Relations. The core difference between the two, is what McNair refers to as the utilisation of ‘free media’ as means for publicity. Ultimately, McNair’s meticulous explanation of the difference between Political Advertising and PR, narrows down to one underlying aspect – payment for services.

McNair defines Political Advertising as “the purchase and use of advertising space, paid for at commercial rates, in order to transmit political messages to a mass audience”, another important element being that “politicians have complete artistic and editorial control (over the advertisements –Ed)”

Political Public Relations, on the other hand, is centred around the use of ‘free media’, or in other words, media outlets that do not charge for their services, but merely cover the politician or party’s activities. Free media, McNair argues, provides politicians with a platform for “exposure and coverage, without having to pay media organisations for the privilege”. The flip side is that while there is a higher level of authenticity and ‘believability’ in this type of communication because “editorial responsibility is seen to belong with the journalist”, “a politician’s appearance on a news or discussion programme is genuinely outside his or her editorial control”.

Now, these definitions make a lot of sense and are entirely applicable a whole decade since their publication. But of course, we can’t help but ponder what the implications of the Internet revolution are? Today as in 1999, political advertising and PR are equally important to the success of political communication, but whereas millions are spent on TV and radio spots, McNair’s definition of PR as “free of charge” holds true now more than ever with the rise of Social Media.

So the question is, will the Internet, or some part thereof, ever be considered equally fundamental to Political Communication as advertising and PR, or will it forever be considered just a part of the two, or a means to an end?

In practical terms, Obama’s election campaigns have already revolutionised the industry, but I doubt whether the Internet can ever be constrained in academic paradigms that make sense on paper just as they do in practice.



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