Few in the Czech Republic are unfamiliar these days with the scandals surrounding the Czech minister of finance, Andrej Babis, and his proven intervention in the media coverage under his ownership. While some might scratch their head at the way the leaked audio recordings took place and on the timing of their release, some might want to stick to the facts: a media owner is proved on tape to brutally interfere in the way his outlets shape public opinion.
Can we still, then, trust the media, you might ask. Do traditional media still matter in the integrated communications mix, as long as we are operating on a market so obviously crooked by the hidden agenda of media owners?
There is no doubt that media have been losing steam for the last two decades. Earlier this century is was still possible to say that PR = MR (media relations). Not anymore. Not with the rise of owned media (websites, blogs, targeted e-mailing services and others), shared media (including social networks) and paid media, other than traditional advertising (Google AdWords is just an example of how you can boost visibility in the digital world without having to go through traditional media advertising). So, does earned media coverage still matter? Should we still put ourselves through the ego-crashing exercise of persuading reporters to cover our story or do an interview with us? Or are we better off without it?
I dare arguing that traditional media (print, broadcast and online news servers) still do matter a lot, for two essential reasons.
One, they are still the owners of the news-making craft. While the gate-keeper function of senior editors has been diminished because of financial considerations (senior journalists are, simply, expensive), traditional media still hold an aura of credibility in the eyes of the masses. In the age of fake news, when we just don’t know whom to believe anymore, we need this basic level of trust given by a traditional media outlet that what they report is at least an attempt to neutral, objective coverage that we can take into consideration when making decisions.
Second, traditional media still play a major role in crisis communications. Traditional media feed on social media to get to juicy topics of companies mistreating customers or creating ecological damage. The stamp they put on someone’s reputation once the bad news gets repeatedly out there on traditional channels is hard to take back. So, while you might be able to do decent work in your customer and business development efforts, the kind of good will and solid positive reputation that is built by being repeatedly present in the traditional media in a positive context cannot be replaced by anything else. It’s like the difference between yourself praising your own know-how, and someone else positively referring you to your key audiences on a mass scale.
So, regardless of the actual health of traditional media outlets, companies and their communicators still need to build media relations is they think communications strategically. The question is with whom we should build the relationship. Should it be with the reporter, whom you feel you can get to know and, to a certain extent, learn to trust? Should it be with the advertising department of the given media outlet, to smoothen your path into the newspapers for less-then-breaking-news pieces of content? Should it be with the editor-in-chief, who acts as the buffer between the intentions of ownership and the actions of the newsroom staff? Or should you go straight for the owner and join the cynical game of using traditional media for your personal interests?
I don’t have an answer to that. I can only regret that the last option is, still, an option not only on the post-communist media markets, Czech Republic and Romania included. My guess is that the choice you are going to make goes hand in hand with your values and level of integrity. For there is a part of me that still wants to believe that we can trust the good intentions of individual reporters, regardless of the pressures of media ownership and traditional media's current broken financial model. If that hope goes away and all we're left with are oligarchs buying media outlets at will in order to sink their teeth even deeper in the frail democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, I think we've got much more to worry about than whether media relations still matter today in the communications mix or not.