The Daily Mail – the most powerful campaigning organisation in the world?

How a UK newspaper became the most widely read newspaper in the world, and how to respond to its attacks

In several recent meetings, we have been involved in discussions about the UK newspaper the Daily Mail.  The paper is tackling many issues, in a manner which most would describe as ‘populist’.

For the lawyer, the scientist or the inside-the-beltway public affairs traditionalist, it is difficult to decide how to treat this phenomenon. The Daily Mail is seen as a ‘downmarket’ newspaper, emotional, not fact-based etc. “It doesn’t matter what the Daily Mail says because no one takes it seriously”.

Unfortunately, this is less and less true. In the UK, more ABC1s read the Daily Mail and other tabloids than they do ‘broadsheets’ such as the Times.  But far more importantly, the Daily Mail website has just become the most visited newspaper website in the world, overtaking the New York Times.  www.dailymail.co.uk has over 45 million visitors a month.

That is as if the entire population of Sweden, the Netherlands, Greece and Portugal read this newspaper website every month…The UK newspaper has, perhaps more than any other, demonstrated how popular opinion is – often powerfully – emotionally driven. Its “health scare” campaigns are a matter of legend. Scarcely a day’s edition is produced without a story of some common product’s ability to produce cancer. The newspaper is relentlessly populist and terrifically successful. There are many equivalent outlets all over the world which are working the same formula (see Spiegel’s attack on Bild in Germany:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/28/spiegel-magazine-bild-germany-right).

What is key to understand about these newspapers, is that their stories and campaigns are not assessments of scientific merit, they are wars for the ‘gasp’ factor and public support. While we may disdain this not-so-evidence-based approach, this is to a large extent what moves public opinion, and consequently decision makers.

When an issue goes public (or you expect it to go public in the future), you need to test your messages to ensure they are fit for the arena described above. Too often public affairs communicators focus on what message will work in the office of an FT-reading politician.  But really what counts is what headline will the politician expect in the Daily Mail or Bild Zeitung, what headline will he use in his own newsletter to his constituents.

Increasingly, we are being asked to develop messaging in two parts: traditional messaging which is often more complex, and then what we call Pubtalk – how would a politician supporting you describe the issue back in the bar in their home town.  In this era of the Daily Mail as the foremost campaigner in the world, the position paper alone just won’t cut it.

September 25th, 2012