Jim Cramer, Eliot Spitzer and the New Reality of the 5-Minute News Cycle

The Five Minute News Cycle

During the Clinton years, success in the ongoing battle for public opinion rested on a straightforward objective: Win the 24-Hour News Cycle.

The propagation of round-the-clock cable news channels and emerging technology known as Internet media saturated Americans with more information than ever before. However, this exponential increase in information had profound consequences; the more information we were exposed to, the less we retained.

In this strange new environment, it became less important to debate issues at length. Merits of policy became secondary to whether the Democrat or Republican partisan “won” that evening’s joust on Crossfire.

The 24-Hour News Cycle remained paramount in the minds of PR strategists until the middle of the George W. Bush years when, once again, communications technologies took a giant leap forward. The proliferation of digital media such as blogs and social networking sites accelerated earlier trends. The extraordinary amount of information circulating through cyberspace meant previous systems of checks and balances to insure accurate reporting fell by the wayside.

It became possible to summon a fact or opinion to support any point of view with a simple Google search. Truth gave way to truthiness (to paraphrase Stephen Colbert). The 24-Hour News Cycle died a quick death leaving us with the new reality of the 5-Minute News Cycle – an immense saturation of unverifiable digital information flying at us faster than ever before.

The 5-Minute News Cycle presents businesses, governments and individuals with unprecedented opportunities and challenges when responding to reputation crises. Here are two examples of crisis management in the age of the 5-Minute News Cycle and what we can learn from them.

Jim Cramer

In March 2009, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart ripped CNBC’s Jim Cramer for what Stewart considered to be his cheerleading of Wall Street during the financial crisis. Stewart delivered his punches with characteristic humor and wit and the insults struck a chord with Cramer and (presumably) his communications team.

CNBC responded by booking Cramer as a guest on the “Daily Show” the next day. What followed was an utter PR massacre. Stewart ran rhetorical circles around Cramer who meekly uttered apologies for fifteen painful minutes. The problem was not that Cramer was unable to beat Stewart in a debate on his home turf – it was that he should have never been in that position to begin with.

His team’s thinking was outdated – rooted in the fossilized model of the 24-Hour News Cycle. It was as if they thought, “Stewart beat us on Monday, so we’ll put Jim on to beat him Tuesday and finish even or ahead.”

They neglected to consider that there was a miniscule chance that a critical mass of viewers would alter their long-term perceptions of Cramer based on a couple of Stewart’s jokes.

Eliot Spitzer

In March 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was linked to a high-priced prostitution ring where he allegedly spent thousands of dollars on call girls. A rising star in the Democratic Party and one-time potential presidential candidate, Spitzer could see his political future evaporate before his eyes.

What followed was one of the keenest manipulations of the 5-Minute News Cycle to date. Rather than risk a prolonged fight over his job, Spitzer acted quickly – stepping aside two days after the scandal broke and staying out of the public eye for eight months (take note David Patterson). Spitzer’s quick reaction to the situation diffused the initial hysteria and provided some breathing room to plan his next move.

Beginning in November 2008, Spitzer began penning articles for Slate. Shortly thereafter, he hit the talk show circuit with appearances on the “Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” His personal sins had already taken a back seat to his professional credentials.

Rumor has it that he is considering another run for public office – don’t be surprised if he pulls it off. Short of a successful political comeback, Spitzer will most certainly enjoy a long and fruitful career in the public eye thanks to his masterful handling of an unenviable situation.

The 5-Minute News Cycle has changed the rules of engagement during a crisis and demands very different (and quicker) responses to situations than the 24-Hour News Cycle. I would ask businesses, governments and individuals to take note, but understand they will probably forget reading this in approximately four and half minutes.