A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on how consumers process and recall digital news relays some interesting findings that are relevant to the PR industry.
How news consumption has changed
Everyone involved in the PR and communications industries are aware that the way in which the public consumes news has changed dramatically. Gone are the days of ink-stained fingers and paper carriers who miss the front step and land the morning delivery in the bushes—we now access news primarily online.
The study looked at the most frequent pathways that direct readers to news stories, by asking study participants twice a day how they received news. Unsurprisingly, more than a third (35 percent) said they got to news through social media channels. Thirty-six percent said through news apps, and other responses included search engine results, texts/alerts from news sources, texts/alerts from family members, and “other.” (Participants were permitted to select more than one source.)
Survey results show variation across news types
One of the more interesting results of the survey was that different news types (business, community news, sports, etc.) follow different delivery pathways. Business and finance news are more likely to be accessed directly through a news organization’s app, while community news is more often passed along through social channels.
Importantly for PR practitioners to note is that different news types also led to different action outcomes. News consumers were more likely to take follow up action on community and health news (such as sharing the information with others on social media) than business or finance news. Content that was scientific was more likely to either be saved for later or emailed.
These results make a certain amount of intuitive sense. If news consumers are connected with friends in a community, it makes sense that information pertaining to the community would be relevant not just to the news consumer, but also to his or her social channel connections. Scientific information, which can contain detail that perhaps would require closer reading is saved for consumption when that level of attention can be paid.
Source identification is hit or miss
Knowing where your information is coming from, and how valid that content is, has been a hot topic as of late. The survey results on this aspect of news consumption were mixed, as just slightly more than half of survey respondents (56 percent) could provide a name for a news outlet from which they had reviewed news. It is also notable that of those who could provide a name, 10 percent offered “Facebook” as a response—not the underlying source.
What this means for communicators
First, these results reinforce certain challenges of which PR practitioners were likely already aware. Running an outreach campaign or trying to encourage social sharing on finance topics was always going to present more of a challenge than an issue relevant to a target audience made up of community members exchanging locally relevant information. It is helpful to see a certain level of validation for concepts that are somewhat intuitive.
Next, from an earned media perspective the fractured ability of news consumers to correctly identify from where their news is coming could be a problem. If that is not the first question that pops into a news consumer’s head—that is, the question of “where is this information coming from and is it a valid news source?”—then earned media itself may erode further in value. When the subject matter exceeds the importance of the source, how should PR practitioners proceed with awareness campaigns? Should they continue to target high-quality earned media outlets, or will high-traffic, sharable sites suffice? After all, if the reader doesn’t care if the source is the New York Times or if it’s TMZ, should the PR pro care? Should the client behind the awareness campaign care? These questions go to the heart of the value proposition of earned media: third party validation of content.
Finally, public relations practitioners have been told, repeatedly, that the ability to provide some level of accurate measurement of results relies on the ability to measure outcomes and impacts of the work done. The information contained in this survey—and, granted, it is just one survey—seems to indicate that programs conducted in certain practice areas are more likely to yield measurable results than others. This is important to keep in mind as PR pros design measurement programs for clients in business or finance sectors—the levels of social sharing and driving increased awareness have the potential to be lower, so more creative thinking and careful measurement design will be necessary.