“In 2012 a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.”
These are the first words of the Pew Research Centres Project for Excellence in Journalism report, The State of the News Media 2013 (http://stateofthemedia.org/). They have significant implications for the media and the public relations industry. The blog has been talking about the issues in various forums for some years now, always trying to stress that the situation is very unclear and, despite the confident assertions of many, it is still uncertain how PR people should respond to this new situation. Suggestions that we simply turn to social media are facile when we are still unclear as to how precisely to use the proliferation of new media for specific target audiences and target messages. This hasn’t stopped many people offering services which pre-suppose that we have found the answers but the blog is unsure if we have even formulated all the right questions yet.
The blog’s uncertainty will be on display next week at an ANZSOG seminar next week (http://www.anzsog.edu.au/events/events-calendar/2013/05/6/ssa-victoria-partnership-program-event/424/adjunct-professor-noel-turnbull-the-media-right-to-know-and-the-public-right-to-know-same-or-different-registrations-open) on the media’s right to know and at a conference in June. In the meantime the right questions might start with some analysis of where the media is at now; and, what mathematics and psychology suggest about how social media operates.
The first, whither the media, is best summarised by the Pew Report. While it is US-based in its research the findings would probably replicated if a similar study was undertaken in Australia. Perhaps the most important finding is that 31% of US audiences have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they need. These 31% are disproportionately the higher-educated and higher-income people media companies want to reach to attract advertisers. In contrast 72% say they rely on word-of-mouth from family and friends as their major source of news with about 63% then searching out a news outlet if they think the news is important enough.
The number of full-time professional newspaper staff is down 30% since 2000 and gross numbers are now lower than 1978 levels. The ratio of PR to media people has gone from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008. Live coverage of news events on cable TV fell 30% 2007-2012 while interviews and talk were up 31%. Local TV devotes 40% of its newscast content to sport, weather and traffic. There is more ‘paid’ and ‘sponsored’ content used in editorial pages; radio is not achieving the same reach as it did; and, digital advertising is generally not going to news outlets. As for political advertising in the 2012 Presidential election year some $2.9 billion was spent on political ads while local TV news audiences fell, national network TV declined and CNN, MSNC and Fox were up slightly. Karl Rove and all those right wing billionaires seem, therefore, to have spent much of their money on channels of declining influence.
So, what are we to make of all this? For many organisations online publication will successfully reach audiences just as ASX lodgement these days brings instant distribution to all company news. This will be ideal for government too although the Pew Research Centre, in another report (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Civic-Engagement.aspx), suggests that the people who are most active in terms of online politics and civic activity are also the people who most active in the offline world version as well.
What we do know about social media and online communications, in hard data terms as opposed to hype, is that communication network analysis strongly indicates that the work of Stanley Milgram and Duncan J. Watts about communication paths and influence nodes is valid. That suggests the traditional PR emphasis on identifying key influencers and reaching them is still valid and that now we may have new tools to identity them and their network effects. Of course all the old provisos about whether, and how, they want to be reached is a different story as various online marketing disasters have shown.
What is clear is that we are going to need new forms of community engagement to communicate messages and create conversations. As yet we can’t be too sure exactly what they will be.