Adapting to Public Distrust: A Last Pitch Effort

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Posted At: October 24, 2012 1:50 P.M.
by Sam Nathews

Photo credit: multiplika2000.wordpress.com

We plan, write, edit, re-write, proofread and edit obsessively to ensure our news releases and other media materials are creative, concise, informative and attractive.

We labor for hours crafting a two-sentence pitch we hope will land our client on the targeted publication’s front page rather than in a reporter’s trash bin, but could a relatively recent trend threaten to prove that a wasted effort?

Perhaps. The American public’s trust in the mass news media is eroding at an alarming rate, and this growing distrust could prove problematic for the public relations industry.

Darron Moffatt, communications manager for The Century Council, reasoned that in addition to other factors, social media might be one of the causes for this growing distrust toward the media in the eyes of the American public.

“Traditional media is being challenged by social media platforms because people want to consume their news directly and without thinking that it is going through a ‘filter’ that will bias the objectivity,” Moffatt said. “They need to have independent news — no quote approval on the part of their reporters, just facts.”

This could present a tremendous challenge to those of us in the PR field who trade in the currency of information. For PR practitioners, the news media serves as more than just a supercharged vehicle that carries our message from the conference room to the living room. It has long been used by the PR industry as one of the most expedient means of gaining third-party endorsements, positioning clients as experts and establishing a client’s credibility.

The erosion of trust is like a virus. It is contagious and has the potential to affect those who come into contact with its host. So how do we avoid getting sick?

Moffatt said one possible anecdote actually lies in what could be a driving force behind this rapidly deteriorating trust in the news media: social media.

“I think we are seeing much more social media (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc.) as ways for PR teams to reach their audience,” Moffatt said. “If you can reach a group of people directly, it removes the need for the traditional media sources that are losing the public’s trust.”

Though Moffatt said that it is not necessary for organizations to toss their media relations strategies aside and shred the communication plans just yet, he also stressed the importance of companies becoming fluent in the language of social media — and to harness its power immediately.

“I think this [growing distrust in the news media] is definitely something that is going to come down the line and present a much larger complication to traditional media and will be a challenge for companies and their PR teams,” Moffatt said. “What I do see right now is, like I mentioned before, a move toward social media — taking your message directly to the source instead of through the filters of traditional media. For right now, however, the media is still a critically important component of a PR strategy.”

Moffatt could prove himself a prophet. A future in which traditional media gives way to new media and third-party endorsements are found on a friend’s Facebook page rather than a news outlet’s front page does appear forthcoming.

But, a world void of the “middle man” with a growing emphasis on social media could place added pressure on the shoulders of PR practitioners to establish and build an organization’s credibility — especially since the information would be unfiltered.

However, we’re not there yet.

Brad Phillips, author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (www.MrMediaTraining.com), the world’s most-visited media training website, uncovered a diamond from beneath the rubble of the public’s crumbling trust.

“Recent polling has made it obvious that public trust in the media is eroding significantly,” Phillips said. “And although that means many Americans are less likely to trust a news organization as a whole, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest they don’t trust the experts who are quoted within the news stories published by those outlets. If some people distrust the Wall Street Journal, for example, I haven’t seen evidence that they don’t trust a business analyst quoted within one of their articles.”

Phillips went on to emphasize the importance of a holistic approach —one that encompasses the use of both traditional and new media — to distributing a message.

“Still, good media relations demands a variety of techniques — so companies should continue to speak with the increasingly less trusted mainstream media as they use their own social media (and other) channels to communicate directly with their audiences,” Phillips said.

Inevitably, circumstances will change and the landscape of the public relations industry will continue to evolve, just as it has since its inception.

When asked if and how news outlets should address this growing distrust, Moffatt said, “I think just like anything, you have to adapt to the changing marketplace.”

Those of us in the PR field would be wise to follow suit.

3 Comments

  1. Margaret Bishop

    Excellent topic choice, Sam — truly a timely, crucial issue plaguing the PR field. Amazing compilation of sources and information. I enjoyed this read!

    Reply

  2. broadcaster

    With all due respect, I have seldom read such rubbish (sorry, trash, for you in the US), clearly written with a vested interest in mind. The only saving grace in this nonsense is the grudging acceptance that traditional media still have a role to play. The part about trusting social media and not traditional media made me laugh -social media is totally random and completely unregulated. Anyone, even terrorists, can write anything they want, even if it’s a downright lie. The bit about ‘going through the filter that will bias the objectivity’ is hilarious. Apart from the appallingly poor use of language, the basic premise is false. Where are the checks and balances in social media that traditional media MUST provide? Surely the writer of the tweet or whatever has his own bias and is not obliged to give a counter view? If a company PR tweets: ‘Smith’s saugages are the best – buy them now’ then that in itself displays a total bias, with no mention of any other firm’s sausages? If this was carried in a national paper (unlikely), for example, the reporter would be duty to bound to report this as opinion and then give a contrasting view, to balance the piece written? Of course we must ‘be fluent in the language of social media’ – how patronising – but even the author grudgingly admits there must be a mix. But I know for a fact that if someone tweets something, through an unregulated system without any checks or balance, I do not necessarily believe it – and as the writer finishes off, ‘those of us in the PR field would be wise to follow suit’.

    Reply

  3. Sam Nathews

    Broadcaster,

    Thank you for your comment. I certainly appreciate your passion toward the topic, and I agree with most of what you’ve stated. Social media is completely unregulated and, therefore, goes through no system of checks and balances. But, the trend that is maturing indicates that the public is becoming, for better or worse, its own filter of information. Through social media, the public decides what they find to be credible.

    Regarding your statement, “The bit about ‘going through the filter that will bias the objectivity’ is hilarious,” the American public is, in fact, losing trust in the “main stream media,” as evidenced by the Gallup poll referenced in the article. I do not state this as wild, random prediction. In addition to other factors, questionable journalistic practices that have recently come to light, which even the New York Times has acknowledged as both real and unacceptable (http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/in-new-policy-the-times-forbids-after-the-fact-quote-approval/?emc=eta1), have resulted in the American public developing a healthy skepticism toward the national media — a skepticism you recognize in your comment. Due to that growing skepticism, the public is beginning to take it upon itself to become its own filter, fact checker and investigator.

    In authoring this piece, I do not profess to know what the future will entail in relation to this particular issue. My only “vested interest” is to further illuminate and spark discussion around an emerging trend in the field of public relations.

    Again, thank you for chiming in with such enthusiasm.

    Cheers from across the pond,

    Sam
    @SamNathews_PR

    Reply

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