Recently, much attention has been given to the spread of fake news and its impacts. Slow to come, however, has been a lack of recognition to the decades-long attempt to delegitimize mainstream media. The constant negative characterization of mainstream media provided fertile ground for fake news, particularly online sources, to take off exponentially. And, it will continue to do so. (Read the New York Times story on some conservative ideologues’ efforts against mainstream media for context.)

Regardless of political affiliation, the delegitimization of mainstream media should concern all PR practitioners — especially media relations, brand, and reputation managers. PR outcomes — such as brand identity and recall, reputation, credibility, and stakeholder trust — take years, many resources, and lots of money to build and maintain. Working with news outlets (media relations) is an important strategy a practitioner utilizes to shape the aforementioned outcomes.

Why are news outlets so important?

News outlets provide 3rd-party validation with readers/viewers/listeners that your organization has done or said something to garner attention. An unspoken mutual trust exists between the news outlet and its audience that the outlet did its due diligence to vett its sources, include relevant facts, and provide opportunities for entities to convey their response. Should the reader/listener/viewer deem the headline worthy of his or her attention, the frames within the story become just as powerful as the placement itself … because these frames will guide an individual’s interpretation of the content, which in turn influences perception. That’s why — way before news coverage happens — practitioners spend time following, cultivating, and prioritizing relationships with reporters; developing and refining key messages (a.k.a. sound bites) and message frames; and, generating newsworthy content that not only aligns with organizational goals, but also reinforces them.

If delegitimization of mainstream media continues unchecked, PR practitioners, particularly those overseeing small communications budgets (less than $100k/yr for all communication activities), could begin to see declines from impacts of media relations strategies and paid-advertising campaigns as the third-party validation factor — held by news outlets — gives way to sporadic, fly-by-night “influencers.” This chaotic nature will eventually negatively impact an organization’s communication department in at least three core areas:

  • human resources (e.g., time involved in finding, researching, and managing these “influencers;” developing and executing efforts to minimize negative impacts from their activities);
  • financial resources (budgets); and,
  • serving as a strategic function for the organization.

Practitioners could also encounter more blatant attempts of “pay-to-play” from entities misrepresenting themselves as news outlets instead of what they really are e.g., content-marketing “mom and pops,” ideological “think tanks,” or propagandists. These entities tend to reserve positive coverage for paying clients, but fail to provide any demonstrable advertising value other than a scattered SEO approach and insurance against future negative coverage.

But “pay-to-play” pales in comparison to slandering an organization’s reputation. Both sporadic attempts and “drip” approaches to package content intentionally aimed at weakening a brand, reputation, etc., disregards journalistic ethics (See Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics), and makes practitioners’ jobs exponentionally difficult for managing short-term outcomes (e.g., decrease in positive perceptions about the organization) as well as long-term outcomes (e.g., decreases in stock market value, prospective customers, customer retention; low stakeholder engagement; low levels of trust; possible drafting of legislation that negatively impacts the organization).

As of now, no laws address the marketing of packaged content as news by entities/individuals misrepresenting themselves as news outlets/journalists; and, few measures exist to hold those entities/individuals accountable for intentionally directing harmful communication tactics.  Instead, we have relied on the assumption that a majority of American consumers are knowledgeable enough to distinguish between opinions and facts represented in news coverage. We have assumed that a majority of American consumers are knowledgeable about which entities are legitimate news outlets and which ones masquerade as such. We have assumed that those entrusted to lead America abroad and at-home, regardless of political party affiliation, respect journalism — a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

For practitioners supportive of continuously moving the public relations field towards a strategic management function, as well as practicing strategic public relations management for the entities they serve, public relations will have to assume it has a role in defending journalism as a whole. Despite the perceived love-hate relationship between public relations and journalism, those ascribing to a strong code of ethics (PRSA or SPJ) are aware of each other’s value and responsibility — and we respect those things. When public relations grounds itself as a strategic management function and adheres to ethics, the important question to answer isn’t whether or not public relations should play a role in defending mainstream media and journalistic integrity, but how we going about doing so.