Political communication is the use of media to influence the way the public vote and how political decisions are made. There are two main areas of study in the field of political communication. The first is the use of political communication in election campaigns. The second is the role of political communication in government operations. A Ministry of Communication or a similar department usually fulfills this brief, which is responsible for comments to the press.
The use of political communication first began in the United States during colonial times and experts have highlighted the importance this has played in American politics ever since. According to James Chesebro, an eminent professor of Telecommunications in the Department of Telecommunications at Ball State University, there are five critical contemporary approaches. These include:
- The Machiavellian approach, which is defined as power relationship;
- The iconic use of images, where symbols and symbolism are important in promoting an idea;
- The Ritualistic approach, which is the manipulation of symbols ;
- The confirmation of political aspects, which looks at the way the politicians are being endorsed;
- The dramatist approach, proposed by literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke, which is how politics is symbolically constructed;
Filmmaker Ken Burns reflected on the lessons he had learnt about political communication while producing a film about Thomas Jefferson. He argued that American politics in the 1990s was far more civil and dignified than in the early years of the Republic. Burns studied the presidential election of 1800, where Jefferson's deism; his tendency to form sexual relationships with women/girls he held in captivity as slaves; and his general character were thoroughly aired and repeatedly maligned in Federalist newspapers. This led Burns to conclude that contemporary negative campaigns pale in comparison with those waged by the Founders.
As the media has become a larger tool in mass communication, studies into the effect of political communication have concluded that people who are more exposed to TV viewing are less likely to participate in politics and are more likely to hold cynical opinions on politics, politicians and democracy. Pippa Norris, who is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, defined the relationship between TV and politics as the ‘unquestioned orthodoxy.'
This criticism and cynicism has persisted since the 1990s, perhaps in response to a series of events and occurrences in politics in recent years. These include the Watergate scandal; Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency; the Iran-Contra affair and the Clinton impeachment. This has led to the view that when it comes to political communication, not just on TV, but in most of the media, that the American public turns off, knows little, cares less and stays home.
Brad Feldman, Head Political Analyst for EmSense, believes that political communication often fails to have a significant impact on the voter, leading to criticism of this media method as a successful tool in engaging the public. According to David Zarefsky, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, one of the most persistent complaints about political communication is that it either simplifies or ignores complex national policy issues.
One tool used in political communication is the securing of a political endorsement from a celebrity or a newspaper. Larry Powell, a political communications expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, argues this is not always a foolproof plan. He explains his theory: "In general, endorsements are worthless and don't often lead to victories for most candidates. Even when the individuals giving the endorsements are extremely popular, there always will be some voters who don't like the individual making the endorsement. Newspaper endorsements often hurt candidates, costing them as much as 3 percent in the polls."
Voting rates in elections are seen as a strong barometer of the quality of political communication amid an expansion of media and technology outlets, with a focus on whether they deliver what they promise. Critics argue the fact voters may choose not to engage or connect with the political process means political communication has failed. This is usually due to public apathy and a low voter turnout during elections.