Revolutionary Measures

Why PR needs to turn around its reputation

13911715043_e32a972f78_zPublic relations has never had a higher profile, but not necessarily for positive reasons. Whether seen as aiming to control the image of celebrities, trying to keep corporate misdeeds out of the press or using political spin to get a particular message across, I’d say that public perception of the industry is actually worsening.

Given that PR people have always been focused on controlling the message why is the profession’s reputation deteriorating? I think there are three key reasons:

1. Chaos is growing
As I say PR is about portraying your company/client/celebrity in a positive light. The problem is that this revolves around people – and people are inherently random and chaotic. So PRs have to constantly balance on a tightrope, trying to plan and control the message in a world where things fall apart. The advent of social media has simply increased this chaos – it is easy for anyone to start a rumour or undermine your story through Twitter and Facebook. Witness the fact that just this week a fake Daily Mail front cover calling for Theresa May to resign went viral on social media, despite the fact that it was an obvious forgery shared by a Twitter user called Lying Tory Media.

PR people feel that they have to be constantly on their guard. And this naturally means that they focus on control and defence rather than positive engagement. After all, it is technically safer to turn down an interview opportunity, even with a high profile media outlet, if there is any risk of it going wrong. This isn’t a long-term strategy, but the speed of the communications landscape can mean people don’t have the time to think long-term.

2. Trust is diminishing
We’ve all seen the figures that show that people trust the organisations around them – be they politicians, the media, companies or other authority figures less and less. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which came out in January 2017, found that government was the least trusted institution in 14 countries, and CEO credibility had dropped to an all-time low of 37 percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if trust has fallen even further since then.

There is a widespread belief amongst many groups that the system has failed people and that the sheer pace of technological and social change is not benefiting everyone equally. This lack of trust means that PR people have to go the extra mile in order to build credibility with ever-more sceptical audiences. And again, it is easier to plan to be defensive – why risk Theresa May meeting real people on her election campaign when you can organise a backdrop of supporters to get your message across?

3. We’re becoming more tribal
I’ve mentioned this before, but populations are polarising into self-contained segments. If you live in a community that is made up of people like you, interact online with the same group and don’t talk to those with different views it is easy to build up a biased world view. Throughout history leaders have focused their tribes or countries by uniting them against an Other, whether that is a rival monarch, country or religion. A similar thing is happening now online, but generally without clear leaders, Donald Trump being an obvious exception.

PR people, particularly on the political side, are becoming focused on appealing to their segment – essentially they feel they don’t need to worry about the Other. Whatever they do opponents will criticise them, so why bother with trying to reach out to them? This does put some PRs on a slippery slope towards propaganda and fake news. No wonder that 73% of public relations professionals polled in a recent survey said that the current White House communications team is negatively impacting the industry’s public perception. But even here tribal loyalties seem to be in play – 15.1% of the sample identified themselves as conservatives, and a similar percentage (15.7%) said the White House comms team “is treated unfairly by the media”.

Public relations finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand the communications, writing and content distribution skills it is centred on have never been more important to business. Yet, the risk is that the sheer pace of change means they retreat into a defensive, safe mode that undermines their credibility. For everyone’s sake, now is the time for PR people to become more strategic, counselling clients to see the bigger picture in order to rebuild trust and unite their audiences for the greater good.

Image Jeff Eaton via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/nckbcV licensed under Creative Commons

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June 21, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fake news – are we on the road to 1984?

For a term that most people hadn’t heard of 18 months ago, fake news is now mainstream. A simple Google search on the term turns up 145,000,000 results, 28,900,000 in the news section. Originally coined to cover clickbait stories written with the intent to mislead for political or financial gain, it has now been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump, one of its key beneficiaries, to describe any story that he disagrees with.

Donald Trump

Misleading the public has always been a tactic used by leaders, with propaganda used to push a particular point of view, especially in times of war. Additionally, many newspapers have run sensational stories to attract readers – witness the New York Sun publishing stories about life on the moon in 1835.

George Orwell’s 1984 shows how the combination of propaganda and mass-media communications can be used to control the population and condition what they actually think and believe. And for those that dismiss that as a fantasy, I’d say that fake news in the digital age actually goes even further, for three reasons:

1. We live in an ungated world
In the past people got their news from a limited range of sources such as newspapers, TV and radio. All of these employed professional journalists to sift and check facts before they reached their audiences. This meant that while they may have been biased to left or right, or even stretch the truth, they had to meet journalistic standards. Now, in the digital world anyone can be a publisher, without needing any training – opinions and stories go direct to the public, particularly through social media, without any guarantee of quality. At the same time trust in traditional institutions (politicians, journalists and companies) has broken down, meaning people are actively looking at other sources for their information.

2. We live in a polarised world
Social media encourages people to cluster with those of similar beliefs, limiting our world view and therefore reinforcing it. During the European Referendum, for example, liberal Remainers just saw tweets supporting their stance on Twitter, leading to a sense of real shock when the result went the other way. When we’re in our bubbles on social media we’re more likely to click on, forward or believe in fake news if it plays to our particular beliefs – especially if it appears to be endorsed by someone we trust.

3. We live in a world with short attention spans
How many times have you seen a headline, read it but not bothered to click through for the full story? In my case pretty often. There simply doesn’t seem time to read news stories in-depth or in-detail. At the same time attention spans are shortening and people quickly move onto the next thing, meaning it is easy to confuse fake and real news.

So what can be done to fight fake news? It is easy to blame Facebook and its algorithms, shadowy websites that make money through adverts that run alongside fake stories or even politicians such as Donald Trump who know exactly the lies that they are peddling. However, I think responsibility goes further than this:

  • PR people and the companies they represent have to think through the stories that they issue – putting a positive spin on something is one thing, but be sure that you’re not crossing the line into untruths.
  • Politicians need to be more careful in what they say – perhaps backed up by an independent regulator that immediately investigates and pronounces on dubious statistics, such as the alleged £350m per week paid to the EU that was splashed on Vote Leave buses during the referendum.
  • As consumers we need to learn that not everything you read online is true, and that we are not in a cosy world where every story is meticulously fact-checked. We need to look for sources, think before we share and broaden our world views to try and understand the wider context of the new reality.

Otherwise the fake news we’ve seen already will just be the start, and we’ll be moving swiftly down the road to a version of 1984 that sees propaganda winning and trust between groups and communities completely disappearing. And that is in no-one’s long term interest – not even Donald Trump’s.

June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Who do you trust?

We live in challenging, complex times. Globalisation, wars, mass migration, terrorism and the sheer pace of technology change all combine to unsettle and worry large percentages of the population, both in the UK and across the world.

In suspicious eras such as these, trust in institutions and organisations is vital if people are to be reassured and helped to understand how change is affecting them. So the headline finding of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer – that levels of trust in UK government, media, business and NGOs have all risen – should be a reason for celebration. The Edelman study, now in its 16th year, surveyed 2,500 members of the public in the UK as part of a global sample of 33,000 people.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

However, behind the headline figures there are two main causes of concern for those of us involved in communications.

1.          Below average national trust
While the UK’s trust levels are at their highest since the recession (excepting in the case of NGOs), the country’s combined, cross-index score of 40% means it ranks amongst the ‘distrusters’, along with most of Western Europe, the US and Australia. The Chinese say they have the most trust in institutions (71%), followed by citizens of the United Arab Emirates (65%), and India, Indonesia and Singapore (all 62%). The global average is 48%.

The UK’s relatively low ranking is probably not a surprise. After all, we pride ourselves on taking a cynical attitude to the institutions around us, and this adds a level of public and media scrutiny that supposedly keeps politicians and business on their toes. Negative headlines sell papers, reflecting the national psyche and appetite for bad news. However, it also means that PR people, and other marketers, need to work harder to convince the general public that, actually, things aren’t that bad for the vast majority, particularly compared to many other places around the globe.

2.          The trust gap
The biggest worry is the widening gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to belief in institutions. Edelman divided its sample into the ‘informed public’ (those with a household income in the top 25%, typically with university degrees), and the general public. Overall the gap between these groups in the index hit 17%, up from 9% last year, with the informed public trusting government, business, the media and NGOs much more than the rest of the population.

In many ways this isn’t unexpected – it is much easier to be happier with your lot if you have a cushion of money and education to fall back on. And the recession has seen widening inequality – figures released by Oxfam show that the richest 62 people in the world held the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population in 2015, equivalent to some 3.6bn people. Working a zero hours contract for a company that allegedly shifts its profits offshore to avoid tax is going to provide a radically different perspective to someone who is a manager in the same organisation.

But the big concern is the impact of this lack of trust. The rise of Donald Trump in the US, and the fact that Poles (the least trusting population at 34%) have just elected an ultra-conservative government that promptly replaced the heads of public broadcasters, shows the consequences of the rift between citizens and public institutions. In the UK this suspicion is evident on the forthcoming EU referendum – 61% of the informed public back Britain remaining, with 26% wanting to leave. In contrast nearly half (47%) of low earners favour leaving, and just 34% believe the UK should stay in.

The consequences of the trust gap are therefore potentially extremely worrying, with populists exploiting public fears to increase their share of the vote and shift the debate rightwards in many cases. It is up to communicators of every sort (whether working for government, business or NGOs) to address this gap, and look to educate the general population, both that current change is bringing positive benefits, and that issues can’t be solved through kneejerk reactions, such as building a wall between the US and Mexico. It won’t be easy as in many cases the devil has the best tunes, but it is vital if informed democracy and real debate are to flourish.

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment