The media has a PR problem: How can it be fixed?

The media has a PR problem: How can it be fixed?

Last September, Gallup released the results of a poll that revealed Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media had reached all-time lows with only 32 percent of participants saying “they have a great or fair amount of trust in the media.”

This was a drop of eight percentage points from 2015.

There are several ways to look at these numbers. One is to ignore them. Another is to be dismissive of the news consuming public.

Or, you can see it as a major PR problem for the media.

If you choose to recognize it as a PR problem, the first thing to understand is that as with any PR challenge, it probably has several contributing factors, so to point only to one thing as the root cause is overly simplistic.

A good public relations analysis takes every possible variable into account and methodically separates the strongest factors from the weakest ones, prioritizing them, all before even attempting to arrive at strategies, remedies or a path to corrective action.

In lieu of such a comprehensive process, in this limited space we’ll explore just one of several possible contributors to the problem, which is the way more than a few reporters (not opinion journalists) use social media.

The fact that reporters use social media is not the issue.

Many reporters now have to use social media to promote their own work, the work of their news organizations and others in the field to stay top of mind. Consultants may even advise journalists to “be more real” (read: less objective) in order to attract the largest possible social media following.

The PR challenge, however, may be tied to the fact that thanks to social media, the public now has direct access to some of the behind-the-curtain aspects of the media.

More to the point, news consumers can now see, first-hand, patterns that reveal an individual reporters’ natural human flaws, their personal opinions and worldview, their tastes, and their temperament, all which were once only familiar to those reporters’ colleagues, family, friends, and maybe a few PR people.

As a result, the journalist’s veil of objectivity and neutrality frequently disappears in the eyes of the public.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other social media, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, can sense how individual journalists personally feel about the stories and people they cover, the way they cover them and perhaps, the stories they choose not to cover.

If we assume that neutrality and objectivity are still cornerstones of journalistic credibility and integrity, anything that damages that sense of objectivity can contribute directly to a PR problem.

The kneejerk reaction in a lot of PR situations might be to blame the public for not understanding that reporters are people, too. In public relations, we have seen clients and employers react this way many times, from many industries, in many situations. But we know blaming the public for any misunderstandings doesn’t cut it. The burden of communication is on the communicator, not the receiver.

Any time you face a PR challenge, the best place to start is to identify the things you can control, and then start to take control over them. In this context, if you are a news (not opinion) journalist, our starting point is with social media posting habits.

Here are four steps you can take.

1. Embrace your news organization’s social media policy

Ultimately, it’s designed to preserve the credibility of the entire news organization. The purpose of the policy is to give the news organization a process for managing and evaluating individual reporters’ social media activity.

Knowing and adhering to your own organization’s social media policy is a step in the right direction.

2. Create your own individual social media policy

Most organizational social media policies give individual reporters latitude on what to post and what to share.

What they don’t provide is a road map for you on how to create your own professional social media identity. This puts the burden on you to act as your own editor of your social media posts. It’s your job to avoid exhibiting patterns that could betray any sense of impartiality.

Your personal social media policy should help you pre-determine the kinds of posts you will make and those you won’t; the kinds of posts you will share and the ones you won’t; the kinds of follower comments you will address and the ones you will rise above; and how you will work to achieve the same kind of journalistic balance and objectivity in your posts that you strive for in your work. Your posts are part of your work product.

Then you must have the discipline to adhere to your own policy.

3. Be mindful of the fourth wall

Actors learn to block out the audience to deliver a solid performance. Athletes learn to do the same in a stadium filled with 90,000 fans. But when it comes to social media, actors, athletes, and some journalists seem to drop their guard and engage with people in ways they never would otherwise.

Mark Twain was way ahead of his time on this, but this quote alone would have made him a social media guru: “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

4. The public doesn’t believe that disclaimer language in your Twitter profile

If your Twitter profile tells visitors that your tweets don’t reflect the views of your employer, or that “RTs do not = endorsement,” you’re kidding yourself.

Endorsement isn’t the only issue. The issue is that like it or not, every RT and every share is a personal reflection on you.

Every RT is seen as an active or passive act of advocacy, endorsement or criticism. The public does not see RTs as a form of objective journalistic reporting. We could blame the default terminology of social media if we want – “likes”, “follows”, “shares”, “friends.”

Keep in mind, the act of sharing on social media is universally a selective process. Since you can’t share everything, the selection process is perceived as an inherent form of endorsement of either a supportive or critical view. In the end, no disclaimer language in anyone’s social media profile will cause readers to suspend their powers of observation and see social media shares as a form of journalistic neutrality.

The common thread here is that if you are a journalist, you are a public figure, so in the eyes of the public, everything they see from you is a reflection of you as a journalist.

They make no distinction between your professional persona and you as a person. The same care you put into editing your words for every formal news report should go into every social media post and share.

In the face of those declining Gallup public perception numbers, if you were my PR client, that’s one thing I would have to tell you.

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy.  He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo via Pixabay

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