Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its international word of the year in 2016, with the definition: “an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” A word defined in such a straightforward fashion belies the major impact “post-truth” has had on our world—particularly on the news industry.
A 24/7/365 Fight for Attention
We have a fractured media ecosystem that clamors for attention—largely to garner the eyeballs and advertising dollars that make things run—that is the ideal setting to cultivate a post-truth world.
The media treat each news cycle as if it is a battle, with clear winners and losers and the truth is usually the first casualty in this environment. Truth is not what is sought out, but rather which side was able to upstage or “win” the moment. The facts aren’t what matter day to day—instead it’s about the evolving drama around the story.
The rush to publish further complicates things. Whether it’s a mad scramble to get something on the air, an urgency to post, or a desire to be the first to share something on social channels, the race to be the first one out of the gate with a story harms credibility and truth too. For some media outlets fact-checking happens well after an event—if at all. Or put another way, fact checking is not the priority and stories are written in such a way as to not necessarily require facts.
What do I measure?
This presents a mess of a situation for PR professionals and communicators. Long trained to treat earned media coverage as a gold standard objective, many are now looking at their media mentions and wondering not just if a target audience has seen the coverage—but whether or not they believe it when they do see it. This is the erosion of trust and it falls to communicators to build it back up with the audience.
Measuring the impact of earned media coverage on audiences has never been easy. A post-truth atmosphere complicates matters exponentially. Communicators can no longer look at a piece of earned media coverage and assume that the way they assess tone of their messaging is the same way their audience will assess the story. There are now additional layers of information that need to be considered, such as:
- Does my target audience find this source credible?
- What about the spokesperson—is he or she considered trustworthy?
- Is the content of the piece believable, or are there claims—even ones unrelated to your client or issue—that won’t withstand additional scrutiny? If so, there’s a strong likelihood that the entire piece will be considered discredited, even if some of it was accurate.
How this affects strategy
The strategic elements of a communications program can take a beating if earned media elements aren’t performing. Given the amount of time and attention that must be invested to do media relations correctly, having “post-truth” problems can present a serious setback.
There are a few things that can be done to “post-truth-proof” your communications strategy. First, make sure that the overall strategy doesn’t lean too heavily on success in earned media coverage. A well-rounded PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) strategy is an important component.
Next, if possible, survey your target audience to gauge how they feel about the sources, spokespeople, and content you’ve identified as important to your program. It’s easier to recalibrate before committing resources.
Finally, dedicate part of your strategic plan to using your paid, shared, and owned media outreach to shore up and reinforce your earned media coverage. For instance, in the example above that mentions how untrue content in an earned media piece can undermine the whole story, a potentially effective strategy to address that situation is by quickly addressing what is right—and what is wrong—about the piece, and work to promote that angle. This will of course need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but planning for it ahead of time can help to mitigate damage to earned media you worked hard to secure.
The rising importance of audience research
Audience research has always been a core component of a well-constructed communications program. Previously, this meant doing the proper research to determine things like who is in your target audience, developing a set of “personas” that help you zero in on likely publications or media channels so that you can build an effective media list, and so on.
The rise of a “post-fact” media environment means that audience research needs to go beyond what was previously expected and should now include some form of primary research. There is simply no other way to accurately assess your target audience other than to ask them directly, which is what primary research does. It can help to inform your strategy early on if you know how they perceive your brand, your actions, and your key spokespersons.
During a communications campaign, you need to understand how the media cycle is impacting your target audience. You’ll be unable to glean that information from the news, because there exists an inherent bias in the post-truth world—the media cannot be trusted. The problem with that bias as described is that it is too broad. More accurately then: much of your audience most likely distrusts some media, but which media your audience distrusts, and to what effect, will remain unknown unless you survey, do in-depth interviews with opinion leaders who influence your target audience, or conduct focus groups.
Speaking to those who would do business with the brand, are doing business with the brand, or have a stake in the success of your brand is the only way to get to measurement that matters.
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