How to Wield Influence in the Age of Social Media: The 'Vault of Power' – 2014 Version

Written by LaVarr Webb on . Posted in Policy Buzz

As a former long-time journalist and public affairs consultant, I’ve long been interested in how power and influence are wielded in a community to achieve important community initiatives.

 

When I started in the newspaper business in 1976 as a young reporter for the Deseret News, it was obvious the “establishment” was clearly in charge. I watched business and community leaders take on a number of important causes and make good things happen.

In a Deseret News story entitled “Vault of Power,” former Salt Lake Chamber President Fred Ball said, "I used to say when I first became chamber president (in 1971) that if I had five men around a table agreeing, I could do anything. They were N. Eldon Tanner (a former member of the LDS Church First Presidency); Jack Gallivan (former Tribune publisher);Wendell Ashton (former Deseret News publisher and Utah Symphony president); B.Z. Kastler (former president of Mountain Fuel Supply); and Arch Madsen (former president of KSL).” George Hatch, former owner of KUTV and the Standard Examiner, and Roy Simmons of Zions Bank were also major opinion leaders and influencers. 

I have heard many stories from periods dating back to the ‘50s, when a few key leaders could sit down at the coffee shop at Hotel Utah and control the direction of Utah. In that era, the real power in Utah and Salt Lake City was embodied in LDS Church President David O. McKay, Tribune Publisher John Fitzpatrick and Chamber President Gus Backman. 

Today, things have changed dramatically. We still have influential business leaders and terrific people who lead many good community initiatives. But the political and communications environment are far different today. It requires more than a select group of leaders to determine the direction of the state, no matter how good their intentions and how important the initiative.

Utah, like the rest of the country, has become too fragmented and too diverse to have a traditional “Vault of Power” where a few movers and shakers can influence elections and determine the outcome of public policy issues. The LDS Church today has an international focus, and individual church leaders seldom engage like they once did. Church General Authorities no longer serve on boards of church-owned businesses, including the church-owned media. Newspaper publishers today simply don’t get involved in community issues like they did under Gallivan and Ashton, and they wouldn’t have as much clout even if they did. Utah has lost the headquarters of a number of major corporations whose leaders often became involved, made contributions and led big initiatives.

In addition, a revolution has occurred in the communications world. A few news media outlets no longer control the flow of communications as they once did. Traditional news outlets don’t exclusively set the agenda, and their editorials no longer greatly influence public opinion. 

These changes are also reflected in the state’s politics. In decades past, establishment candidates generally won the big elections. The business community, often led by the Salt Lake Chamber, had significant influence on both election outcomes and major public policy issues. Today, establishment influence still exists, but it is not nearly as dominant, as evidenced by the defeat of long-time Sen. Bob Bennett, who had strong support among business leaders.

Today’s diverse, fragmented communications and political environment is driven, in large part, by dramatic technological advances in communications. Society today is highly fractured, but small, passionate groups like activist environmental groups and the tea party are empowered through easy networking and powerful communications capabilities.

In the era of web sites, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, everyone can be a publisher and broadcaster. Traditional news media are no longer the gatekeepers, the filter through which information is communicated to the masses. Today, any individual can communicate to thousands, even millions, and powerful networking capabilities enable motivated advocacy groups to organize almost instantly and exert influence.

And volatility is enormous. With Twitter and Facebook, the political environment can change in a heartbeat. Rumors spread like wildfire. Everyone hears everything, almost instantly.  Protest groups spring up overnight. Once a social media feeding frenzy gets rolling, it’s almost impossible to stop.

We saw that occur in Utah at the end of the 2011 legislative session when lawmakers very quickly passed HB477, the GRAMA bill, dealing with access to government records. The bill was actually not as bad as critics made it out to be, but activists on both the left and right were upset and such a social media uproar occurred that lawmakers and the governor quickly backtracked.

The same thing occurred with the federal SOPA legislation, dealing with Internet piracy. Powerful Washington interest groups watched in stunned amazement as the campaign orchestrated through social media stopped the legislation cold. It had been expected to sail through, in short order.  

Presidential races are more unpredictable than ever before. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said the last election was “the most volatile and tumultuous presidential primary race in our lifetimes. We are in uncharted territory. . . . The establishment is not what it was decades ago, when it was peopled by seasoned veterans who made decisions and got people in line. That's gone.”

Washington Post writer Richard W. Stevenson said the old guard is losing power. “Republicans have traditionally tended to be hierarchical, choosing their nominees in an orderly and almost predictable fashion that gives deference to the preferences of elected officials and favored experience, brand names and electability. … It’s not clear that there is a meaningful Republican establishment any longer.”

And the pace of these trends is only going to accelerate. We’re only in the early stages of the communications and governance revolution. 

Personally, I believe that the “establishment” – the business and community leaders and wise old heads in politics – still have much to contribute to Utah’s success. I believe that important community priorities, projects and initiatives exist that need to be pushed forward.

But community leaders need to learn to exert power in today’s political and communications environment. Lunch at the Alta Club with the chamber president and newspaper publishers won’t accomplish much these days.

Leaders need to learn how to create a new “Vault of Power” -- 2014 version. Influence can still be wielded and good community objectives can be accomplished. Good people can still be elected. But success will require using a combination of old techniques and new techniques – including superior use of social media. No one can completely control the message. But by using the latest communications tools and techniques, the right audiences can be reached and energized to frame issues, establish the tone of debate, create viral campaigns, and influence outcomes. Success requires using all the power of data mining and social media, and using these tools more effectively than opponents. Political machines, built for influence in the age of social media and “Big Data,” can still be deployed.

Society has changed dramatically. The old, establishment “Vault of Power” will never return. Big community initiatives and political battles in the digital age require mastery of the new tools of communications and advocacy.



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