Americans have fallen out of love with their editors. The conclusive unraveling of the long romance between informed citizens and the men and women who produce the news was announced several weeks ago.
You may have not seen it in the headlines the way I did. You may not have noticed the subtle messages delivered by the advertising trades when they declared, "65% of Americans believe magazines sell editorial plugs." But many of us in the PR business who work with the media each day understood.
The headline referenced a study recently released by Starcom MediaVest that found a large majority of consumers believe advertisers pay for editorial mentions and that stories are the result of an editor getting a check from an advertiser, rather than a good pitch from a PR pro.
As a citizen and a former journalist who believes that a free, credible press is the foundation of our way of life, this troubles me greatly. As a PR pro who believes our industry's core competency is media relations, it is frightening to think consumers no longer understand why it's important for thoughtful editors to decide the content of news reports.
How long before clients ask: Why look to earn news coverage when you can buy it?
This question of editorial credibility is as critical for the future of our profession as it is for the media. The media need professional PR people for story ideas, access, and insights. In turn, PR pros need high-quality media, led by intelligent editors, to provide editorial judgment.
Much of the blame for the declining media credibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the publicly traded media companies themselves. These behemoths have allowed their editorial products to wither through a remarkable lack of insight about what makes newspapers worth reading and news broadcasts worth watching - editorial content.
As news holes, air time, and editorial budgets shrink, news reports that were once credible
and compelling start looking a lot like a 55-year-old with a comb-over. It's very hard to love something like that. Moreover, it only serves to make us believe the worst about them, including that their editorial columns and airtime are for sale.
While I am not yet in full panic mode over this spiral of decline, I do believe that the erosion of the quality and professionalism of journalism in America is an early warning sign of our own profession's potential demise.
The PR industry, for both the right reasons and those of self-preservation, needs to take a
leadership role in preventing the further decline of journalistic credibility.
We should advocate a ban among legitimate marketers of any purchases of editorial mentions in news columns. It's the role of PR pros and corporate communications officers to educate their counterparts in advertising and media planning about the destructiveness of this potential addition to the marketing mix.
Maybe the love is not lost after all. Maybe we can help reignite it.
Mark Hass is CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee.