An era when data can be sent and received outside of traditional media outlets–via blogs, email, instant messaging, text messaging, camera phones, etc.–has created an atmosphere where truth is the prize. Those in the public relations industry must delicately balance the public’s right to know and a client’s right to direct its own message. And yes, there are ways to walk this internet-era tightrope successfully.
Imagine if blogs and instant messaging existed at the time of the Watergate break-in. Within hours of the news being reported, blogs would have exploded with suggestions, insight, research, and accusations. Some of this information would be wild, and some later proven true. It would not have taken Woodward and Bernstein to “break” the Watergate story. Instead, it would have been a community event.
It’s in this environment that public relations professionals now ply their trade. Formerly nameless members of public relations departments have become targets for these non-traditional media outlets. Where a public relations contact could once espouse the company line with little worry of recourse, public relations departments, and their statements, are now the focus of intense scrutiny by weekend pundits who distrust the message and the messengers.
Building an effective defense system in this environment will take time and energy. A public relations team must be proactive in defending a company’s message and image across an enormous front that entails everything from newspapers and radio talk shows to blogs and internet message boards. Monitoring the media has become more difficult as new media outlets emerge each day.
To deal with these issues, public relations pros must be technically savvy and (most importantly) willing to embrace new media concepts. Blogs have already become an important target for embargoed information. Those in the public relations profession unwilling to acknowledge the seismic shift that has occurred will find themselves with second-rate clients and little exposure to show for their efforts.
Speaking with various PR people, I got the sense that many people in the industry recognize that the traditional media has fundamentally failed at its task to provide timely, relevant, and unbiased news to the masses. As pundits replace reporters, public relations professionals can no longer rely on “easy” press directed by editors looking to fill space and time.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to find a reporter, much less a [media outlet], that doesn’t have some sort of agenda,” one veteran PR person told me. “By the time our message is reaching the consumer, it’s become so warped that we’re no longer excited about getting press. We’re almost scared to pick up a newspaper.”
To combat this, the public relations vet and his team have begun targeting blogs to distribute their news. “We don’t send [blogs] press releases,” the PR vet said. “What we try to do is engage the publisher in a dialogue and try to build a relationship with them. We do this on a very personal level, assigning individuals to certain blogs. We begin with a basic conversation about something on the blog – a story not directly associated with our company – and from there, we try to build some level of mutual respect between our person and the publisher. It’s been slow going, but we’re begin to see some positive developments.”
A recent “positive development” for this public relations team came about due to a story in the traditional media. “A newspaper hammered us, and there was nothing behind the story. Some reporter didn’t do his research, jumped to conclusions and then misled us as to what the true subject of the story was. We complained to the reporter, to the editors, and to the publisher–to no avail. Then we gave our side of the story to what we felt are some key blogs that cover us, and the story became something else: that of a company unfairly being punished by a lazy reporter,” the PR vet told me, with obvious glee.
Looking to expand on this success, this public relations team is searching for ways to “take the power out of the media’s hands.” Among the ideas being discussed include blogs written by PR people and executives; the creation of a PR “ombudsman” blog to provide a balanced view of the company’s press coverage from an outsider; an internet “street team” equipped with a blog, camera phones, and other resources to get the company’s message across. And finally, something very simple:
“We’re retraining ourselves and our executives,” the PR vet said. “In the past, we’d think nothing of putting an executive on the phone with a reporter and not being concerned with the outcome. But those days are over. At the end of this month, we’re putting our executive and public relations teams through a series of PR workshops we’ve created in-house with the help of a consultant. We’re going to equip our people to deal with the media on our own terms.”
People won’t stop buying newspapers, watching the television, or listening to the radio. But with their credibility questioned by the popularity these non-traditional media outlets, the media will have to make drastic changes to earn the trust of the masses once again. In the process, the public relations community will have to find a way to help, and fight, its key ally: the source.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.