It is not an overstatement to say that trust in the media is at an all-time low. A recent survey showed that some two-thirds of the public don’t trust TV journalists and three-quarters don’t trust newspaper journalists. And PR and media are inextricably linked, two sides of a similar coin if you like. Where the media suffers, PR also takes a reputation hit.
The line between PR and advertising has been blurred over the last decade or so. The pressing need for online publications to monetize their content has made it difficult for readers to know which articles have been paid for and which have been ‘earned’. The latter tends to have more value in the eyes of readers than paid content. So, the difference needs to be clear and some publications are failing to do this.
There has also been an increase in the number of channels buyers can use to research products and services. Rather than turning to big brands to tell them what to buy, buyers are increasingly using social media networks and forums to gain insight. PR agencies and in-house PR Heads can no longer control the message.
The Crisis Of Media Trust
Let’s go back to where this all started. Before the internet there was an unspoken contract between readers and news publications. Quality content was published and most newspapers had a strong ethics code and at least tried to be balanced.
If you had a particular political leaning one way or the other, you would read the publication that most adhered to that worldview. But the understanding was that the publication in question would at least try to show objectivity, whichever way it happened to slant politically. This affinity between publication and reader and the fact that subscription models created regular, loyal audience for the newspapers, meant that standards were upheld and brands were held in high regard.
Fast-forward to today. The free content model means that online publications need to attract attention at all costs. Once upon a time, investigative journalists could command decent prices for in-depth quality pieces. Now the same journalist would have to sell three or four articles to earn the same money.
Quantity is prioritised and this is driving down quality because sensational headlines drive clicks. Even mainstream media outlets are having problems keeping afloat in the cutthroat world of free online content. Where advertising rules and competition is fierce, clicks are the lifeline.
The ‘Public Persona’ model
The lack of trust in the media has a knock-on effect on PR. This means that brands, especially in these fractious times, need to be careful to take the right tone in their PR and marketing campaigns. One small hiccup can lead to social media backlashes which are never pleasant or even worse, long-term reputational damage.
Oscar Wilde argued that it’s worse not to be talked about than to be talked about. So it could be argued that even if there is a backlash, it’s better than being ignored. It’s true that blandness is a losing strategy, but this usually comes due to a disconnect between product and audience. A meaningful connection is vital.
Trust doesn’t happen overnight, but is built by developing authentic relationships. If you are building an audience online, it’s more productive to engage with followers/readers as a genuine ‘public persona’ rather than as a faceless brand. This demonstrates accountability and willingness to put thoughts and beliefs on the line. Here are a few quick thoughts about how to get started.
- Use your personal account and your real name if possible
- Answer every reply (at the start at least)
- Tweet around the topic, not directly about your product/service
- Don’t ask anything from your audience until you’ve been tweeting for a while – once you’ve developed a following you can start doing this (still only occasionally)
- Stick to your principles – aka stand for something unless you’re wrong in which case apologise
In the past the PR agency ruthlessly policed access to the gatekeepers. This is no longer the case. Now you can reach out to journalists yourself and grow your own networks on social media, creating genuine connections and long-lasting customers.
For regular articles about PR strategy, content, writing and brand building, you can sign up to the newsletter below (& you’ll also get our guide on the right way to pitch to journalists).