Issues in Public Relations – The Declining Influence of Traditional Media

Posted on November 11, 2010

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“The media’s power is frail. Without the people’s support, it can be shut off with the ease of turning a light switch,” (Corazon Aquino, 2001).

Is this to be the case for Traditional Media channels?
The work of those in public relations is described as “The planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsors objectives…” So said Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy in their book, PR – A Persuasive Industry?: Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media. In the past this work was carried out utilizing traditional media channels, principally communicating through the use of mass media. However in recent years, trust in the media has begun to decline. Last year Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2009, p.5) found that the UK had the lowest level of public confidence in its media out of the twenty countries surveyed. So, with members of the public questioning the reliability of what they read in the print media and what is reported on television, this situation has had an adverse effect on the value which practitioners place on the usefulness of traditional channels. “In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomised but connected ‘up’ to Big Media, but not across to each other, and now that authority is eroding”. (Professor Jay Rosen, 2009)

While Q2 2010 has shown some signs of improvement (KPMG Survey 2010), a Media Outlook report has noted that media firms are remaining cautious and are not expecting to see a speedy recovery (Media Outlook Q4, Barclays, 2010). In general the move away from paid traditional, or mainstream media, continues to accelerate as more and more people switch to the Internet for their daily information and entertainment. With regards to print media, newspapers have recorded an overall decline in readership of 6.4% year on year (MediaTel, 2010). While the BARB (2009) (Broadcast Audience Media Board) table below demonstrates the decline in television viewing, radio is proving to be more resilient. However, while the number of listeners has grown over the last decade, the amount of time people listen continues to fall (RAJAR, 2010).

The primary reason for the overall decline has been the growth and development of various social media platforms. The 21st century consumer is no longer content with the traditional mass media channels, rather he/she seeks a two-way interaction. In a recent interview in The Independent, the former head of BBC News, and now Edelman’s Chief Content Officer, Richard Sambrook (2010) said, “Big companies are going directly to the consumer to engage with them now, rather than through display or spot ads and the traditional means of trying to reach consumers. You can’t just be out there shouting at people about your brand, you’ve got to engage with them.” Communicating through traditional media allows for very limited engagement with the party receiving the message, and this is something which can cause frustration amongst the recipients of that message. In order for Public Relations practitioners to meet their client’s objectives, they have had to interact more with their audience and gain a better understanding as to whom they are dealing with in order to achieve results. In his book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, Brian Solis (2009) wrote, “For too long, PR operated behind the curtain, hurling over news bits in waves instead of focusing on individual conversations. Social media and user-generated influence has changed the very foundations on which PR is built, forcing communications professionals to step from behind the curtain to engage with the people they’re trying to reach.” (p.70).

We can say with certainty that the use of traditional mass media will never be as effective or as widespread as it once was, since customers have become more accustomed to the freedoms offered by social media and the ability to provide feedback and make their opinions felt. However, while this may be generally accepted, traditional media tools can still be very effective in communicating with ones target group, hence many practitioners and clients still value them highly. In the PRSA 2009 Digital Readiness Report: Essential Online Public Relations and Marketing Skills, it was found that traditional media is still a vital tool for practitioners with 82% of organizations looking for new employees skilled in the so-called old-fashioned media (Shwartzman et al., 2009). Furthermore, although overall trust in the media sector has fallen, it found that “In a volatile year, it seems that an informed public values guidance from credentialed experts” (Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2010). For this reason, during the 2010 UK General Election – the first in which social networking played a significant part – traditional media (mainly television) was seen to have played a more influential role in the public’s decision making (Rory Cellan-Jones, 2010). It is clear that traditional media has lost its monopoly, particularly with consumer generated content playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of news and information, but nevertheless it still has a critical part to play within the PR industry. In a recent interview with Richard Ellis (2010), Head of Communications for the PRCA, he said, “The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, the broadsheets and the Tabloids have always been the thing. They remain the prestige coverage that you put at the top of your press cuttings when you show the CEO or the head of communications what you have successfully delivered”. Whether this is more about prestige or good coverage is not clear however, but evidently those in the field continue to find old media to be of value to them and their organisations.

It should be noted that if it is to remain of value in the future, it is certain that traditional media as we know it will need to change and adapt in order to better meet the needs of the customer (Lloyd Gofton, 2010).

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Posted in: Public Relations