THOUGHT LEADER: Pop culture has its lure, but smart PR pros stilltake serious news seriously

David Letterman's recent ping-ponging between CBS and ABC and Louis Rukeyser's abrupt dismissal from Maryland PBS' Wall Street Week have created plenty of grist for the media mill. Tabloid hoopla, ad buys, and network posturing aside, the questions communications pros must ask is: Will news lite become the news du jour?

David Letterman's recent ping-ponging between CBS and ABC and Louis Rukeyser's abrupt dismissal from Maryland PBS' Wall Street Week have created plenty of grist for the media mill. Tabloid hoopla, ad buys, and network posturing aside, the questions communications pros must ask is: Will news lite become the news du jour?

What is the value of news in our society? And, what is our responsibility for ensuring quality news content?

Unfortunately, news is a depreciating asset in our culture. As an industry, we have a responsibility to advocate for and promote its value at large.

Generating media coverage and developing substantive news content for clients are two different things. Both approaches have their place in communications programming. It is important not to blur the distinction between the two, yet the line grows fuzzy.

Our celebrity-focused culture, the proliferation of entertainment news venues, and the ongoing economic realities of editorial staff cuts and outlet closings make Hollywood hype tempting. I believe in the communications benefit and value that celebrity spokespeople, star-studded press events, and pop culture can bring to clients. I know how the Hollywood factor can drive interview opportunities, store traffic, and sales.

But do we rely too heavily on star power for everything from product launches to cause-related programs? Does celebrity intrinsically provide greater news value than other communications strategies and tactics? These are questions only you and your client can truly answer.

However, the Letterman/ABC situation provides insight into what the continued declining value of news could mean. The diminished stature and clout of shows like Nightline should give us PR pros pause because it could mean fewer media opportunities for companies with complex medical, financial, social, and political issues to discuss. It could decrease expert comment and by-line article opportunities on national issues that are tied to client concerns. It certainly could lower the volume on national dialogues that should give us personal pause as well.

ABC's attempt to attract a younger crowd and raise late-night ratings is a far cry from the beginning of a news Armageddon. Yet, it symbolizes a notable shift that may portend an era of limited outlets for in-depth news commentary. I don't know if the continued growth of headline news and the blending of news reporters into pop icons necessarily mean that entertainment and youth rule. But the sacking of Rukeyser after 32 years on Wall Street Week, indicates the spreading of a trend.

Replacing Rukeyser with younger Fortune editors and restructuring Wall Street Week's format is certainly PBS' call. And, after all, 32 years is a long time. However, when it comes to grappling with complex market issues and questioning Wall Street titans, is Rukeyser's age of 69 really a detriment? Consider the fact that by 2011 the "baby boom" generation will begin to turn 65, and by 2030, it is projected that one in five people will be 65 or older. It could well be that Rukeyser and his peers will more accurately reflect the viewing public as opposed to their younger counterparts.

In a recent interview on Larry King Live, Rukeyser said, "A lot of people of all ages don't want just an MTV approach to life. They want a little more thoughtful program. They want a little commentary that makes sense."

I hope Rukeyser is right. But I also believe that we are at a media crossroads.

A Gallup poll, conducted March 4-7, 2002, reports that 77% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Koppel, compared with 67 % for Letterman.

The poll also states that 81% of Americans, between 18-49 favorably rate Koppel, compared with 75% for Letterman. And Nightline leads among men 50 and older (46% to 29%), and among women 50 and older (63% to 16%).

Yet, it's the youth market that is important to advertisers.

We can't change network, cable, or public TV business, but we can be aware of the value we place upon news and how we leverage it. Does our media strategy reflect a balance of hard news offerings, as appropriate, along with celebrity glitz? Do we assess the pros and cons of provocative news issues for clients and not automatically shun them as controversial?

And do we truly help clients understand the benefits of participating in hard news stories that may not yield an immediate commercial payback, but that provide long-term benefits that are crucial to their success?

Ultimately, the value placed on news is an indication of how successful PR pros may be in adding value to our clients.

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