PAUL HOLMES: PR pros may now have to navigate around the media in order to communicate with credibility

In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I came across a survey indicating that more than half the American public believed Saddam Hussein had a direct role in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, I found another survey, this one indicating that 41% of American adults thought US troops in Iraq had already found weapons of mass destruction.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I came across a survey indicating that more than half the American public believed Saddam Hussein had a direct role in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, I found another survey, this one indicating that 41% of American adults thought US troops in Iraq had already found weapons of mass destruction.

It's understandable when there is such confusion over issues of opinion - like the safety of genetically modified foods - but these are issues of fact. Such surveys can be taken as evidence that the American public is simply stupid, or - put more charitably - that it believes what it chooses to believe. But what they really prove is the abject failure of the media. There are people out there whose job it is to keep us informed and dispel misinformation - and they are failing at that task miserably. There are two explanations. The first is that the media has been cowed into submission: there's a real reluctance to call government officials on their lies and deceptions. The second is that even when the media tries to provide accurate information, no one believes it. A recent USA Today poll found trust in the media down from 54% in 1989 to 36% today, and the recent New York Times scandal has done little to inspire confidence. (It's hard to imagine that relaxing the rules on media ownership, encouraging the consolidation of influence among fewer and fewer conglomerates, will improve the situation, so kudos to the Public Relations Society of America for speaking out against the FCC process - the very antithesis of openness - that paved the way for that decision.) What does this mean for PR practitioners? It means they have to start looking beyond the traditional media outlets for ways to communicate with key constituencies. First, because the traditional wisdom that the media delivers credibility can no longer be relied upon: most people only say, "It was in the papers so it must be true" when a story confirms their preexisting beliefs. If it contradicts those beliefs, they'll say, "You can't believe what you see on the news." And second, if the media doesn't present both sides of important political issues, it certainly should not be relied upon to present both sides of a complex business story. PR professionals must discover new ways of circumventing the media, of delivering their messages to target audiences using truly credible third parties to make their case. Done right, this kind of direct communication can be more targeted, more cost-effective, and more beneficial in terms of building a personal, one-on-one relationship between an institution and its stakeholders.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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