PR Predicaments: 4 Trends for PR to Watch

by PR Coach on March 17, 2011

Can PR handle future strategic challenges?

Public relations is really in a predicament these days. Badvocates, Leakalikes, gotcha journalists and vigilante social media are popping up everywhere. Our PR talents are needed more than ever but these new challenges are also growing tougher every day.

The good news is that, regardless of new media platforms, what’s always critical to PR are: strategic and analytical skills, sound judgment, high caliber writing, great storytelling and the ability to move quickly.

Add to that the need to be increasingly social media and tech-savvy and you’ve got a complete picture of today’s PR pro.

With new developments, PR has an important role to play in monitoring, interpreting, managing and helping organizations respond to strategic issues. In reality, strategy is the critical, high-value role of PR and often is the most satisfying work.

Four Trends for PR to Watch

The not-so-good news is there are four very big challenges looming on the horizon for PR professionals.

1.  Gotcha Journalism is Flourishing

Ambush interviews by hell-bent reporters have been a challenge ever since the launch of CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1968 as well as a whole generation of journalists influenced by Watergate. Of course FOX News and talk radio continue to foment controversy but gotcha journalism is reaching new heights.

Just look at the actions of the activists and pranksters called the Yes Men targeting Chevron and other global corporate interests. Or the now-infamous fake BP Twitter account activated after BP’s Gulf oil spill.

Steven Silvers skillfully highlights Three truths of the new gotchaism. He cites pretend journalists pranking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). Recently, Vivian Schiller, President and CEO of NPR resigned, taking the fall for remarks by another NPR executive Ron Schiller (no relation). The reason was his slamming of Republicans and the Tea Party movement in comments in a hidden-camera video made by two men posing as executives for a fake Islamic organization considering a $5 million donation to NPR.

Russ Baker at Business Insider Politix reports that comparisons of raw and edited footage tell a different story. The NPR comments were actually quite moderate. The edited video is selective and slanted to meet the gotcha’s agenda. But why didn’t NPR defend itself?

What are the biggest challenges of gotcha journalism for PR pros? First, mainstream media are gleefully reporting the news created by the antics of activists. Second, new activists are coming from every direction, fueled by the success of others. Anything goes in the new hypercompetitive world of news.

2. WikilLeaks Spurs New “Leakalikes”

I call them “Leakalikes.” They look like, act like and may have as much impact or more as WikiLeaks in the near future. Particularly, if they begin appearing at local levels.

WikiLeaks really came into prominence in Nov 2010 when it leaked more than 250,000 embarrassing secret US embassy diplomatic cables. As media around the world feasted on the story, PR people also watched closely when founder Julian Assange claimed he will target big business next including Bank of America sometime in 2011.

The rise of WikiLeaks has led to several interesting new look-alike websites. Among them:

Localeaks – works like a dropbox for anonymous tips to more than 1400 US newspapers. Simply choose a state, a newspaper and submit your tip and files on local misdeeds for newspapers to investigate.

OpenLeaks – OpenLeaks claims to be “unique in that we do not receive or release documents ourselves. Instead, we provide the technology and experience from our past to enable more entities, institutions and others, to process information that may be vital to our society.” It was founded by German journalist and ex-WikiLeaks guy Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Time will tell how it evolves. [Ed note: OpenLeaks is currently not operating.]

PolitiFact –tracks the promises of US federal and state politicians. Tools include the Obamameter, GOP Pledge-O-Meter, Truth-O-Meter and Flip-O-Meter.

Curt Hopkins at ReadWriteWeb has an excellent catalog of WikiLeaks clones that is well worth reading.

Stay tuned for leakalike newcomers, driven both by technology and idealism but perhaps lacking the editorial oversight and integrity of the caliber of The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN and other traditional media.

3. Citizen Journalism & Badvocates Abound

The growth in citizen journalism reached prominence with the bombings in Mumbai in Nov 2008. The attacks were reported constantly on Twitter and other social media and media were sourcing comments, on the scene reports and video footage from these citizen journalists.

Now the practice has become so mainstream, CNN even features daily contributions by citizen video journalists. Thankfully, they still have to pass review by TV news producers.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Joel Meares highlights a global collection of recent Stingers from our past. Among them: Better Government Association and Chicago Sun-Times uncovering civic corruption; ACORN’s pimps; Vatican gay priests; an expose on DC lobbyists pitched to improve Turkmenistan’s public image;  Perverted Justice and CBS Dateline trapping pedophiles; pimps and Planned Parenthood; and Humane Society attacks on slaughterhouses.

According to Kimberly Burke, badvocates also spread negative comments about companies through a wide range of various social networks. This influence and extensive reach give these critics profile and media credibility, a big challenge for PR to manage.

These citizen journalists and badvocates make for very interesting reading and TV. Often they are irresistible news coverage. Mainstream media will increasingly report on their stories, badvocate stunts and their unfortunate targets. They are destined to make our PR professional lives most interesting in the future.

4. The Rise of Vigilante Social Media

Bullying has been around since the advent of the Internet. Comment hogs and blogging critics are common. But what’s now developing is a trend towards vigilante social media.

It happens when, rightly or wrongly, you are tried, convicted, sentenced and punished on the Internet and through any number of social media channels.

This can happen with incredible speed. It can break on a very large scale and even if you’re innocent, you may still be perceived as guilty long after the posse has moved onto its next target.

The demise of Cooks Source magazine is a great example of vigilante social media. By plagiarizing writers’ content and then unapologetically defending itself, the online magazine received a harsh judgment by social media critics. By the time the story hit mainstream media, its failure was just a matter of time. It closed in late 2010.

Another example? The inappropriate tweet on Twitter by fashion mogul Kenneth Cole. He used the crisis in Egypt inappropriately for selfish marketing purposes. The condemnation was swift and sizable. He was forced to issue a reluctant apology and became just another vigilante social media target and PR fail example.

One more recent example? Bing’s errant marketing tweet promising to donate a dollar to Japanese earthquake relief for every retweet of its pitch to help.

Again, the Twitterverse moved quickly to condemn the insensitivity of Bing/Microsoft.  Another global PR social media faux pas with instant reaction and a negative impact on a usually good reputation.

The internet tribe has spoken. And another reason why PR, not marketing, should be in charge of social media!

What’s Public Relations to Do?

In a nutshell, PR people must take responsibility for a strategic role inside your organization by:

  • Monitoring and listening for early warning signs of issues.
  • Responding quickly, accurately and appropriately using the same social media channel as the crisis or problem.
  • Analyzing the potential impact or the possibility that an issue may develop into a full-blown crisis.
  • Not overreacting.
  • Ensuring your entire organization is watching for and alert to potential problems.
  • Carefully building allies, creating community and engaging advocates who will support you in a crisis.

The key question is will PR be up to the challenge? If you ever wanted to sit at the boardroom table, you’ll monitor these four trends and look for ways to offer insight, advice and strategic solutions to help your clients or organizations cope.

What trends are you watching? Have you had success defending your reputation from badvocates and gotcha journalists? Your comments are most welcome.

Looking for other advice on how to be a PR strategist? We’ve got a whole section in the PR Library dedicated to strategic public relations resources. The PR Bookstore also has more than 230 PR titles including strategic public relations.

Photo Credits: Daniela Hartman, Pete Morawski via Flickr

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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