OPINION: The power of the columnists is less clear

The recent compilation by Editorial Intelligence (EI) of its list of the media's most influential columnists provoked a typical debate.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

Was it right to place the doyenne of the liberal left Polly Toynbee at number one? Did Irwin Steltzer's learned outpourings really carry so much more weight with audiences than those of Simon Jenkins? 

It was a fascinating piece of research that will spawn endless discussion about of precisely where the power to influence may lie. For the lobbyist arm of our profession, the political and those sometimes uncharitably dubbed the chattering classes, it was invaluable.

However, PROs operating in the broader spheres of publicity and media management would do well to note its limitations.

First, the key fallacy of the EI report is its assumption that the real power of the commentariat lies in the pronouncements of any one single polemicist. The power of the columnists in the modern media is collective, not individual.

It is vested in the ever-growing amount of space accorded by print and broadcast media to columnists and commentators - often at the expense of straight reporters of the facts. For newspapers, columnists are box office - big names with star billing in the battle for circulation.

The PRO who wants to successfully build the profile of a brand or personality, or to limit damage to either, must create the right sort of talkability among the columnists.

Telling it straight in news terms is no longer sufficient. The old dictum of never mixing fact with opinion is long dead, both in print and broadcast. Publicists need to address the attitude as well as the facts.

The second limitation of the EI report for PROs was that the 'hearts and minds columnists' were not part of its remit. Can there really be a brand or personality who would not cherish a favourable mention in a column written by, say, Jane Moore (The Sun), Allison Pearson (Daily Mail), Carol Midgley (The Times) or Brian Reade (Daily Mirror)?

Or an individual who has appeared on GMTV and who would not subsequently enjoy the value added to reputation by a positive mention in either Fiona Phillips's column in the Daily Mirror or Lorraine Kelly's in The Sun? These, among many others, are the writers who can shape consumer thinking.

Limiting any definition of the commentariat to an elite group of political commentators who very often write simply to talk to each other is to misunderstand the fact which more than anything defines the modern populist media.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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