On Dominic Cummings’ tell-all: What we can learn about media coverage and the importance of social listening

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Podcast. 

In one of the recent episodes of The UnNoticed Podcast, I talked about how Dominic Cummings caught the media’s attention in the past days after his seven-hour speech. The former special advisor to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked about the incompetence of the British government during the lockdown. And the way the media covered the story differently gives us an opportunity to look at how the things we’ve done before can impact our current and future actions. 

Most people in the UK will be aware that Cummings played a Machiavellian role of sorts during Brexit (wherein the UK left the European Union). Afterwards, he had a falling out with Johnson. It was interesting to hear him come clean on a number of things that happened over the past year. That event has prompted different headlines from different media. And for the public, it has provided some clues on how different audiences think about the same story.

What the Media is Telling

The media, by and large, have been fairly factual in their reporting. The BBC, for instance, has a lead that said, “Thousands died needlessly as a result of government mistakes in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.” Later in the article, they quoted Cummings saying how “senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.” 

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On the other hand, Sky News, a publication whose website says “News that you can trust,” highlighted in their headline how Health Secretary Matt Hancock branded Cummings’ evidence as just a performance. He also contradicted what the former advisor has previously said. 

What was interesting for me was the incoherence in his story. Cummings has taken a trip to Barnard Castle during the lockdown, traveling hundreds of miles to the Northeast of England on a pretense that he was trying to get his son to his parents and that he was testing his eyesight. One of the commentaries he discussed was how the government created this narrative about him breaking lockdown. The real reason, according to him, was because his family has received death threats and that there was a gang outside his house. At the time, most of the nation felt that he should have been sacked due to the incident. 

One might initially have a sense of sympathy or even empathy. But reading into the situation, most people know that in England, if you had a gang of people outside your house and you worked for the government, you’d get access to the special services or you could have at least called the police. You wouldn’t get into a car with your family and drive in lockdown. For me, there’s a real credibility issue there. 

Other media have been less friendly about the story. The Guardian, which is perhaps one of the more libertarian media in the UK, wrote in their headline: “Dominic Cummings’ tell-all told us what we already knew about the Tories.” On the website, there’s a large number of commentaries from readers talking about the attitude of a certain group in the UK towards the government, Johnson, and Cummings — and the whole way in which the country has been “run” since the election, the Brexit, and the lockdown. On the other hand, London Evening Standard (a publication that goes out into the capital city) has this: “Hancock says he’s no liar; did any of the Cummings’ ‘truth bombs’ land?” 

This shows how there’s one media outlet saying that we all knew that these people were basically incompetent and they were lying and out of control; then there’s another saying that none of that was true. It’s proof of how the same event can be interpreted depending on the media outlet and who their audiences are. Though it’s always a debate about which comes first — does the audience dictate what the publication writes, or does the publisher dictate what the audience reads — there’s some degree of symbiosis with regard to the publication and their audience’s relationship.

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Tracking Sentiment

There’s a platform called SocialMention and it tracks the strength, sentiment, passion, and reach of a particular keyword, or in this case, a particular person. There’s a free version of it (You can also use earth.ai, a significance systems platform, which costs about a hundred dollars. But it is really worth it especially if you want to search for your corporate branding).

Though I didn’t invest in the full platform, a quick search on how Dominic Cummings performed on the mainstream media showed that the strength was only 14%. There was zero passion and the reach wasn’t great either. Now for the sentiment of the mainstream media (I selected news feeds from The Guardian, London Evening Standard, The Financial Times, and The Independent), there were two positives, three neutrals, and two negatives. It shows that in the mainstream, there’s a balance in the sentiment. 

When you look at blogs and micro-blogs, the strength would be 20%; passion, 21%; reach; 12%; sentiment, 3:1 (positive is six, negative is two, neutral is 21). In here, there’s a greater rumbling and there are greater commentaries taking place compared to what is happening in the mainstream media. The people on these media are quite unsure on which way to go. 

Some of the headlines are: “Dominic Cummings wins surprise fans thanks to his unbuttoned shirt and northern accent”; “Tory MP mocks Dominic Cummings with Barnard Castle themed eye test chart pinned to her wall during Cabinet Office questions”; “Demis Hassabis: the deep mind Dominic Cummings turned to as the pandemic hit.” Indeed, there is a spread of opinion, a spread of articles — and the majority of which are neutral. On social media, what’s interesting is that the attitude towards Cummings after his seven-hour speech is more positive, with a ratio of 3:1. 

Why Social Listening is Important

If you’re working on media and public relations, it’s important to track sentiments from different channels. If we only measure official channels, we’re only going to have insights into a very controlled catalogue of content (For instance, in some Asian countries, governments are the ones that run the media). We need to look at social mentions using platforms like SocialMention or significance systems to understand what people, who are not paid to write, are saying about a particular topic, issue, or person. 

If you run a company and you’re thinking of launching something or you’re looking at taking advantage of a certain opportunity, relying solely on mainstream media for guidance could actually give you a wrong steer. As seen on data from Social Mention, three times as many people were positive about Cummings coming clean and talking openly — with his shirt unbuttoned and with a northern accent — about how the government’s mistakes in handling the pandemic. This complete transparency has won over some sections of the community in the UK. However, this still wouldn’t change anything because Johnson already has a fairly unassailable lead in the political world. The conservative part would also not replace the leader that brought Brexit. 

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However, if we’re managing a campaign for a client — may it be political, social, or commercial — social listening is important. You have to go beyond the traditional media. Because in the traditional media, there will be publishers and advertisers and they’ll create content that is pretty much 50-50 (as in the case of Cummings) — content that is dependent upon the leaning of the publication. If you really want to know what people are thinking; if you really want to get into the psyche of your potential customers, partners, or competitors, then there’s a need to do some social listening through tools like Social Mention or significance systems. There are also free social media monitoring tools, such as TweetDeck, TweetReach, Followerwonk, Lithium (which has acquired Klout), and Hootsuite among others. 

While social monitoring is one element, social listening goes deeper. There are free tools like Google Alerts, which is simple and easy to use for tracking. However, it’s different from SocialMention, which can provide sentiment analysis, allowing us to see which trends are taking place. If you were Cummings and you have political ambitions, this will help you see whether you’re winning or not. If you’re the government or Hancock, on the other hand, you could also see whether you’re in trouble or not. And according to the metrics that SocialMention is sharing, people are inclined to giving Hancock an opportunity to answer back before they make their decision. As for Johnson, people have already made up their minds. Then, seeing Cummings’ previous behaviour in the cabinet as an advisor, there’s an indication that he’s quite hard to trust — and it could be the same in his recent story. Going all the way back to what I’ve said earlier, your behaviour before an event will create a lens through which new and future behaviour will be seen. 

On a more practical, day-to-day level, people may not be doing a social mention check on you and your company. However, they’re certainly doing a keyword search they’re going to see what is said about you through tools like Trustpilot or Google Reviews. This is why it’s important to check out what people are saying. Also, make sure that everything you do is aligned with the reputation that you want to have. As we’ve seen from Cummings, the past does come back to haunt. And it’s very hard to create a new future when we’re’ dragging around our digital past.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast The UnNoticed, you can listen here.


Cover image by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash.