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Public Relations’ Role in Navigating Polarized Media

Many challenges face public relations today — distrust of business, economic uncertainty, and a new media environment driven by Web 2.0 technologies and social media. As if that’s not enough, a recently released Gallup poll shows that consumers have lost confidence in print and broadcast news — posing what may be the greatest challenge to our industry. And, it’s one born not of technology, but of simple economics.

Despite best efforts to offer factual, objective and timely information to the media, what can you do when your audience no longer believes what they hear?

For consumers, news is never farther away than the smart phone on their waist or the hotspot around the corner. Bombarded 24/7 with news, analysis and commentary, it’s no wonder that media is more fragmented and segmented than ever before. In this morass of news coverage, media channels are in constant competition for the audiences who drive their ratings and bottom line. So, to keep their viewers, readers, advertisers and corporate management happy, media outlets need to focus on appealing to, rather than informing, the audience.

Instead of buyer beware, the mantra has become buyer be pleased. Many consumers are choosing their channels based on their ideological perspectives or political positions. As a result, we see many news outlets slanting their coverage to align with the audience they want to attract for the revenues their investors demand.

Unfortunately, in this environment, consumers who want to be fully informed need to invest more time and effort, and review more sources than ever before. And, that doesn’t account for the issue of determining the authenticity or credibility of each source.

Where along the way did we lose objective coverage and the longstanding “two sides to every coin” that we grew up taking for granted? Have we forsaken civil dialogue and debate in our quest for higher ratings and bigger advertising revenues? When you look at the heated debates and entrenched attitudes surrounding health care coverage, the jobs bill, immigration reform and the stimulus package, for example, few can claim to be conversant about both sides of the issues. More importantly, many don’t learn anything beyond what their “selective” digest of the media would tell them.

So what is our role as public relations professionals who serve clients and society? Do we cater to the polarizing language and positioning in the hopes of furthering a client’s position? Or, do we take on a larger role and build an objective, unbiased look at both sides of an issue? Can we truly serve a client’s best interests if we simply align votes or attitudes on one side without cultivating the knowledge and understanding necessary for consumers to make an informed decision?

This new dynamic makes the role of the public relations profession more challenging than ever. Given segmented news sources and their editorial bias, providing information to outlets that have no interest in providing balanced coverage seems futile. Too many of them have found that controversy, conflict and entertainment are what bring in readers, viewers and ad dollars. Often, these factors determine what and how the news gets covered. With increased competition for audiences, many outlets assume that another media channel will service those who prefer the other side of the story. Ultimately, they would argue, the public has the ability to hear and read a countering position — if they so desire.

As a profession, how do we help change this dynamic? Should we provide balanced arguments on both sides of an issue and allow media outlets to select what they believe their audiences desire? As public relations professionals committed to the PRSA Code of Ethics, that doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.

If our industry is to survive by serving our clients, helping manage their reputation and providing counsel that helps them thrive, we can’t passively participate in media decisions based solely on financial return. As ethical public relations professionals, we need to continue to encourage accuracy, objectivity and transparency, as well as strive to restore the public’s waning confidence in the fourth estate. While we can’t change the media, we can remain true to our principles and the stories we provide on behalf of our clients.

Remember that issues, like coins, always have two sides. However, the flip side is lost when we choose instead to flip two different coins.

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of PRSA and director of partnership development at HGTV in Knoxville, Tenn.

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