Image Credit: Supplied

Veteran journalists who were active before the digital age will remember the traditional relationship with Public Relations (PR) companies, which used to be a source of information for news reports. That’s no longer the case with the information landscape changing at rapid speed, driven by technological developments and new vehicles of communication.

With social media now being used as a tool by both the mainstream media and PR companies to promote content and propagate messages, the relationship has changed. Though journalists still receive press releases from PR companies, media is shifting from what was perceived as “working for PR companies for free”.

Two factors are responsible for the change in the relationship between the media and PR industry. Firstly, to survive the sweeping changes wrought by technological developments – especially online – and change in demand, PR companies are trying to do the job traditionally done by the mainstream media. Secondly, media outlets are under pressure due to the digital transformation of news and information dissemination. Moreover, both are trespassing into each other’s territories, losing their identities and diluting the characteristics of their core business.

Financial hardship is pressuring media to seek revenue through ways prohibited earlier: direct marketing and advertisement. Sponsored content not clearly marked as advertisement led to a new form of content called “Advertorial” (Ads produced as journalistic content), blurring the lines between journalism, marketing and advertisement. Traditional media outlets started hiring PR and marketing professionals to help shape content in ways that can be monetised – especially on digital platforms. Of course, monetisation is essential, but continuous dilution of content will drive consumers away to satisfy their demand for real news and journalism from other sources.

Also, PR companies are hiring journalists and digital content creators to produce a readymade content to feed customers without the media interface. Social media platforms came handy propagating the trend, and now the promotion content is becoming more visual, snappy, and crisp. Using videos, graphics, GIFs and other new forms of production is becoming the trend. Here, the PR industry might have the resources to surpass media — which uses social media primarily to promote its original journalistic content. PR is indirectly contributing to the trend of social media replacing mainstream media, which is now almost peaked and its curve has started declining.

With recent revelations about social media being used by intelligence agencies to shape public opinion through disinformation and fabrication of news and information, both PR and media should reconsider their use of that vehicle in distribution and promotion.

First, and foremost, distinguish themselves from advertisement and direct marketing. Who wants to be implicated in the issue of negatively influencing politics via social media, as in the case of the alleged Russian meddling in US presidential elections of 2016 shows! Or even for lesser degree of notoriety the case of Brexit referendum in UK in the same year!.

Recently, Facebook ended its relationship with PR firm Definers that offered political-style “opposition research” trying to implicate American philanthropist and financier George Soros in wrongdoing. The decision came after a mainstream media outlet, the New York Times, published a report exposing the PR company’s malpractice. Facebook said it wasn’t aware of the misinformation. Facebook, Twitter, Google and others has a lot to apologise for in the last couple of years as their practices dented the public trust in social media.

It’s not social media or digital developments to blame for what one considers a sort of deterioration in both industries: media and PR. If both seriously look at it as a transitional phase, they need to refocus on their core businesses; PR as identity promoter and image builder, while media as a provider of credible news, information and analysis. That might help in regaining the public’s trust and taking out the confusion in public sphere created by the social media explosion.

A new relationship between PR and media will develop and it will benefit them both and the public. Technology, especially digital means of distribution and dissemination of information, will be central in shaping that new relationship – yet, going back to basics: Technology is a means and tool not a formulator of content and product.

While traditional big businesses in both industries have the resources and power to change, hope rests more on new small and medium businesses. So, these nascent PR companies and media outlets can help shape the future if they keep the focus on core business and stop cramming in the same circle of advertisement and marketing.

Dr Ahmad Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist.