Public Relations in the Age of Fake News

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In the era of fake news and a tsunami of content, it is more important than ever to have third-party endorsement, but paid content is having the effect of making some more educated consumers less trusting of media and more wary of what is real news. Graham Medcalf takes a look.


When the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) conducted some research in 2018, a concerning feedback was that a high proportion of both in-house and agency practitioners believed that many in their own organisations, in the case of the former, and agency clients, in the case of the latter, didn’t understand what PR was all about. 

“There is a perception that PR is media relations,” says PRINZ CEO Elaine Koller. “There is not an appreciation of the breadth of what PR practitioners do.”

For the record, the list is a long one, and in order of time spent, the most frequent activities include: content creation, media relations, strategic planning, digital and social media management, content curation, crises and reputation management, business planning and objective setting, measurement and evaluation, influencer relations, internal communications, branding, event management and more.

Marketers don’t necessarily come into contact with some of the key specialisations of the PR industry and a focus on marcomms is often a misleading bias for this audience in their perceptions of the practice.

It is not well known that 70 percent of PRINZ members work in-house in a combination of corporate, public sector and not-for-profit organisations, only 20 percent practice within PR agencies and about 10 percent are self-employed. This breakdown can, however, be misleading as only 1,400 of an estimated 10,000 people working in some guise categorised as PR are PRINZ members. Although, in 2018, more than 2,500 attendees engaged in PRINZ events and professional development activities, meaning non-members also tend to take advantage of the services offered by the industry body.

In an age of fake news, there is a concern that in this unregulated sector, it is only PRINZ members that are required to abide by the Code of Ethics. That is not to imply that there is any major issue, but it is good for clients to appreciate that PR in New Zealand relies on self-regulation without a requirement for practitioners to have any formal training, association membership or be bound to adhere to the association’s ethical standard. 

Koller’s first recourse to any complaints that come her way is to confirm whether such complaint has been made against a member. It appears that inevitably complaints are never about members. 

“Personally, I think PR has started to get its reputation back,” says Claudia Macdonald, managing director of Mango Communications. 

Recognition 

“Ultimately we are all wanting to lift the quality of the work that’s being done,” confirms Koller. Part of that is recognition of good work and PR practitioners now have the option of entering both the PRINZ Awards and the recently introduced PREScom Awards held under the auspices of the Commercial Communications Council.

The Communication Council’s PR, Experiential and Social Media Committee (PREScom) introduced the new awards to raise awareness of the value of PR, experiential and social media services for clients. The first of these was held in 2018.

There was a fear in some quarters that these would clash with the PRINZ Awards designed to recognise and celebrate the best PR and communications management work in New Zealand, which are now entering their 45th year.

“There is some overlap,” admits Paul Head, the chief executive of Commercial Communications Council, both are practitioner awards but PREScom focuses on three disciplines of PR, social and experiential.

“We see the PRINZ awards as having more of a public affairs focus.”

Some would disagree but Koller does not seem phased by the competition. For PR agencies like Mango, it is another opportunity to celebrate success. 

“Awards are good for client and staff morale,” Macdonald says. “There’s nothing better than having your peers say, ‘well done’. 

“I remember when we won the PRINZ Supreme Award for McDonald’s in 2016.  We were all over the moon, but the client especially so because it was endorsement of his hard work of the last five-plus years to change perceptions of the organisation and brand in this market.”

Macdonald believes both PREScom and PRINZ Awards are important because they recognise different elements of the business — PREScom shines a light on the marcomms work while PRINZ has a broader remit and represents the full gamut of PR from government to not-for-profit, in-house and external consultancies. 

PR doyen Deborah Pead, CEO of Pead PR, is more circumspect: “We have divided opinion on awards,” she says. “I know they are a big deal for the ad industry and some clients value them, others are more interested 

in their own results than agency results. “Awards from well-recognized bodies can be a useful validator for potential clients.” 

Pead is more interested in entering clients into their industry awards than entering her agency. Pead does, however, still dine out on the Cannes Grand Prix and Best in Show she won for PlayStation in 1999.

A changing landscape 

Both Macdonald and Pead have been around a fair while and both are upbeat about the state of the industry.

“Public relations is not really changing,” Macdonald says, “but the tools we use to deliver it have. The underlying premise of public relations is to build or protect the reputation of an organisation, brand or person. Generally, its effectiveness is built on the positive influence of third parties. 

“Whereas advertising is often ‘broadcast’, and while direct marketing is very much one-to-one, public relations works through third parties, such as journalists, bloggers, ambassadors and content creators, to talk about you and your brand.”

She sees PR practitioners as having adopted the new channels, like social media (both owned and via influencer marketing), to talk about a brand, in much the same way they work with media.

“Marketing uses a wide range of tools and channels. PR quite simply uses whatever tools it needs to achieve its goal. Digital and social media are now an effective channel through which to communicate; content (video, still, written) is and always has been part of our tool kit.”

Dallas Gurney joined Drum, formerly Spark PR & Activate, two years ago after 22 years in media, primarily running radio stations. He believes PR agencies are no longer PR agencies and face an uncertain future. 

Proactive media relations makes up around 15 percent of what Drum does. The agency makes children’s books and mascots, puts on events for clients, builds floats, negotiates partnerships, recruits ambassadors and produces cost-efficient creative solutions. It does social strategy and management, navigates the influencer minefield, does sampling and manage media partnerships.

“Don’t get me wrong, media relations remains an important channel and there is a likely role for it across many campaigns,” admits Gurney. “But it is much harder to get meaningful coverage than it used to be, this is blamed by many PR people as being a result of shrinking newsrooms and the emergence of native (paid) content.” 

Gurney doesn’t concur with that belief. He thinks it’s harder because more brands are trying to do extraordinary things. As he says, there’s more news than ever. There’s just more to report on and there are more platforms. 

“When I started in media the journos would work on one or maybe a handful of stories a day. Now the digital beast requires a production line of stories. While brands have benefited from that, it is harder and harder to stand out and be that purple cow.”

Eleven PR’s Angelina Farry advises that the increasing importance of influencer marketing has created a real need to deliver recommendations based on data, not intuition. “To meet this need we’ve developed ‘Hubblescope’, a proprietary influencer marketing tool Eleven uses to review, select and rate influencers according to their brand fit.”

Pead confirms that “the PR Industry is no slouch at moving with the times.” PR has always been a nimble resource – it can change message and tone of voice at the stroke of a pen, and that fleetness is true of how fast the profession has changed in a dramatically altered landscape.

“The biggest change is how effortlessly PR has integrated and collaborated with other marketing services to service the ever-expanding range of media,” she says.

As a brand-building agency, Pead PR has always focused on delivering a seamless and fully integrated response. Consequently, its been an easy and natural evolution for them to extend their services to include digital, content creation and social.  

“When we appointed a social media manager six years ago her job description focused on writing blogs and setting up Twitter accounts for clients. Today our slick production team is, producing engaging material across digital and social, a quantum leap from our pioneering efforts.”

So, while what PR agencies do is fundamentally the same (fostering a positive relationship between the client and the audience) the resources available to them to be successful have expanded to legitimately include social and digital into the communications mix.

PR agencies have had to adapt their businesses to a rapidly changing social media and technologically changing landscape. Change happens faster, information comes in faster and everyone is moving faster. Content, social and digital capabilities have had to be established. 

Some agencies have considered acquisitions of social and content agencies but finding a lack of skilled management have opted to build their own resources. 

Many people, especially under 30s, don’t consume much traditional media anymore – yet they do follow a bunch of New Zealand influencers and they’re likely to watch branded videos on Facebook (sometimes via media pages).

“One of the biggest changes is the continued decline of traditional media reach, particularly in New Zealand, and a little less so in Australia,” reports Jane Sweeney, managing director of Anthem. “Also, like it or hate it, influencer marketing continues to grow.” 

Sweeney does confess that influencer marketing could be reaching a tipping point but fears pitching will get harder as the media landscape shrinks. “In the short term, influencers are pushing up their rates. It highlights how clients now must rely on all their channels – owned, earned, shared and paid — to get their brand story heard and understood.”

“As the digital landscape explodes, so has the knowledge and expertise required to deliver best in class work, Pead says. “We’ve invested heavily in essential talent, systems, programmess and equipment from both a digital and content standpoint. We now have digital, content and account teams that work together to develop communications that consider all the elements and channels required for each client.”

In practice, PR has, like all other marketing disciplines, embraced the digital age. Content creation and social media platforms are natural tools and channels to get brand messages across. And using so-called ‘influencers’ or ambassadors is an effective way to do it and influence consumers’ choices.

“What hasn’t changed is the single-minded focus on being a strategic partner to our clients,” Sweeney says. “Our business model is advisory and agency. For us, the two most important capabilities are story-telling and relationship building. In that sense, nothing’s changed – the way we’re deploying these skills is changing.” 

Anthem is increasingly a content creator, identifying opportunities to tell client brand and news stories and providing rich visual and video assets. 

Sweeney highlights the increasing influence millennials are having on the way brands are expected to behave. “Millennials may not have the spending power of Boomers, but they have a disproportionate influence. They’re the perfect generation: they’re opinionated, have a strong moral compass, are digitally native and very mobile.” 

“Experiential is also having a come-back,” Macdonald says. “It’s always been a powerful way for a brand to engage with consumers directly, but now with a smart social and digital plan, the value equation is much more palatable for clients – while we still may ‘engage with few’, it’s now pretty much guaranteed we can ‘share with many’.”  

Mango has invested in social media tools, it’s trained up its team on digital, social, influencer and content creation. “Aside from the platforms on which content is shared, none of this is new to PR. I’ve been around long enough to remember when corporate videos and newsletters were extremely popular,” recalls Macdonald, “these too have seen a resurgence as companies see the benefit of being their own ‘publishers’. Look at Resene with Habitat. Great magazine, telling a good brand story, building loyalty and positive associations.”

In the regions 

The established Auckland players may be adapting well to the new environment, but it is in the regions that some of the best PR work is being done. It’s just that it is not in the marcomms area. Tauranga-based Campbell Squared Communications has been the winner of the medium to large category at the PRINZ Awards for two years in a row. 

In 2017, Campbell Squared Communications’ Angela Campbell, Scott Campbell and Rebecca Savory were recognised for ‘Now is our time! Building a better future for our whānau’, which was developed to reconnect Te Wairoa whānau with their iwi. It saw one of the largest Treaty settlements to date signed with the support of a significant number of engaged stakeholders.

The following year, Campbell Squared Communications’ winning entry was for ‘He Tohu Exhibition’, a campaign to re-house New Zealand’s iconic constitutional documents. It also won the ‘Marketing Communication – Integrated’ award category.

As chief judge, Lisa Finucane, said at the awards: “The campaign team confronted the need to rebuild stakeholder relations and create a positive public response for a project that had faced criticism in the past. The entry exemplifies everything a marketing PR campaign should be and showcases the results of a truly integrated campaign.”

Also, from the Bay of Plenty, Bridgette Tapsell, owner of Village PR & Marketing, bills her agency as, “a company that put avocados on the map in New Zealand and helped Rotorua get its mojo back with Aucklanders”. In 25 years, she has never entered any awards, but Village PR was the agency selected to assist Te Arawa with their PR for the Royal visit in Rotorua. The media were blown away and Rotorua was the only city in New Zealand that gave the media a powhiri. 

“We led 100 of the world’s top media onto the marae, where on entering the wharekai, which was decorated for royalty, they were speechless.” 

Rotorua scored the highest marks of 10/10 from local media reviewing each city’s hosting of the Royal visit. A fine example of top-class media relations.

Budgets 

Budgets have always been a problem in PR and this is partly due to the misapprehension that media is free. 

“Often there is not enough money to measure the effectiveness of a campaign, so many campaigns lack proof of success,” Koller says.

“Paid media has changed a lot,” agrees Pead, “in the past there was a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon between editorial and advertising and ‘never the twain shall meet’. Today if we have an editorial meeting with media, invariably their advertising representative joins the session. We also see editorial teams under pressure from advertising departments to involve them in conversations to deliver ad spend. Some media have told us that our editorial coverage would directly correlate to how we scaled our media buy. And we now see online sites that have shifted from 70:30 editorial: sponsored content to the other way around.”

The sponsored/integrated content has seen clients trust PR agencies with so much more of their ad spend, to the point where they are leading integrated campaigns in collaboration with media.  

“In previous years ad agencies used to flick us the ‘value-added space’ they negotiated for their ad spend. Not anymore,” Pead says.

Today if it’s not paid, it’s not going to be seen and often, it’s not worth investing in. It means marketing teams have to allocate more and more budget to boosting and this needs to be a major part of agencies’ planning and budgeting. If you are going to create beautiful, funny or insightful content then you need to make sure it’s being seen – by the right people.

 “Now we favour an interdependent collaborative approach – where the brand and content creator work together to come up with something that’s truly relevant to an audience and that is an authentic fit to both the creator and the audience,” Pead says. “It’s also important that paid space is clearly declared by media and influencers, if not it’s abusing the trust of the public.”

Kelly Bennett, managing director of One Plus One Communications, maintains that earned media is still a big part of what most PR firms get briefed to do by clients, and, he says: “They continue to ask companies to make us famous, but on a lean budget”.

Bennet believes there is an irony here, in that most big global communications firms have ditched any obvious reference to public relations, in part because ‘PR equals press relations’. 

“You could argue that in a fake news environment, that’s eroding the level of faith people have in the Fourth Estate,” he says. “It also means trust is getting harder and harder to earn, and it’s never been easier to lose.” 

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust is down around the globe, and for the first time, that’s impacted media. There is no evidence of that happening in New Zealand, however. 

Success 

It appears that those who are succeeding in the rapidly changing PR environment are those who have a breadth of understanding of where the trends and the technology are taking the market. It requires flexibility and an openness to try new ways and innovative solutions. This requires critical thinking skills and creativity, plus an aversion to merely applying template solutions. And at all costs, being authentic and avoiding being fake.


This article was originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.

About Graham Medcalf

Graham Medcalf is former Editor of NZ Marketing and regular contributor.

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