The rise of Donald Trump and the troubling dynamics of our rapidly changing political environment have added several new phrases to the national discourse: “Fake news” is one of them, “alternative facts” another. The latest unfortunate addition to the repertoire (this one coined by alt-right media activist Jack Posobiec) is “reality journalism”… which of course is anything but reality or journalism.
These concepts – and the damaging ideas they help spread across our increasingly divided country – pose challenges for every industry and every profession that engages heavily with the news media. For the public relations industry, however, the challenges extend even further due to our responsibility for a third party: Our clients.
Especially for any public relations firm that is business-focused, the practice of PR increasingly involves creating an extra layer of protection. Not only do we need to ensure that the storylines we communicate are more honest than ever, but we need to be smart about the political strings behind the outlets we engage with.
Without question, inauthenticity and agenda-setting is at an all-time high across the Internet. The public relations sector, which has long been a torchbearer for the value of storytelling in media, is not at fault for that – despite what industry-outsiders may think.
But while “spin” will always have its place in PR, we inside the industry understand just how important it is for us to engage in honest corporate storytelling on behalf of our clients. As the truth-averse world of alt-right media activism continues to flood the media environment with falsehoods, professionals in our industry have a heightened duty to deliver fact-based storylines and authentic narratives to journalists.
Unfortunately, though, communicating honest client information to the news media is the easy part for PR professionals – at least for those firms whose clients have strong business news and smart ideas to communicate. What’s more difficult is parsing which outlets are appropriate for clients’ news now that campaign ties and media-driven agenda setting are such top-of-mind issues for consumers and corporations alike.
The responsibility of PR professionals to avoid the most egregious media sites is obvious: The Breitbarts of the world deserve no news from any upstanding PR or publicity arm. But where to draw the line is a question every agency head must grapple with. Which outlets don’t you want your clients’ content to land in? What consequences could result from poorly placed coverage?
There’s no right or wrong answer; every individual firm (and PR client) must determine where their boundaries lie. But I’ve personally opted to limit my firm’s engagement with any media outlet with deep ties to Trump.
Quite frankly, we’d rather avoid the potential damage that being in those outlets can cause our clients’ brands than embrace the potential publicity. Other firms may not make the same judgment call, but we see it as an important pillar of our services in today’s truth-averse media era.
A protective approach to PR isn’t as exciting as an all-publicity-is-good-publicity ethos, but it’s arguably more important than ever.
In an era where “reality journalism” is fed by falsehood, tweet by tweet, PR can ultimately be the best (and most fact-based) front line for businesses seeking to keep their brand reputations on the up and avoid being dragged into the blackhole of nonsense we’re confronted with in media and PR circles every day.
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