The “New Rules” for PR Pros and Journalists in an Era of Alternative Facts and Fake News

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there is no denying that last November’s election changed everything. Both PR pros and journalists alike now find themselves in a rapidly changing environment where the hallmarks that once defined their industry are shifting, possibly forever. Indeed, this dynamic environment was the subject of a recent PRSA Cincinnati/Cincinnati Society of Professional Journalists panel which asked the question “Who Has the Real Story?” and discussed the role that PR and journalism plays in our current era of “alternative facts” and fake news.

Throughout the panel, one theme became evident: PR professionals and journalists are now playing by a different set of rules, and it is crucial to adapt to these rules if we are to continue doing our jobs effectively. Here are some of the “new rules” that are emerging in the wake of today’s changing media climate:

1. An increased sensitivity to news outlets. Gone are the days when someone would passively consume a news story without paying attention to where it came from. We have now been conditioned to actively look for the origin of a story and to determine its newsworthiness based on the amount of trust we have in the outlet that published it. As public relations professionals, we must take this increased sensitivity into account by being more selective and strategic about the outlets we are pitching to ensure their values align with the stories we are trying to tell.

2. A focus on finding your “winnable middle.” Given today’s increasingly partisan media, it is simply impossible to make your story resonate with everyone. Instead, you should focus on finding your “winnable middle”—the group of people who may actually be influenced by your story. By crafting your message to speak directly to this middle group, you will maximize your story’s ability to connect with the audiences who matter most.

3. An emphasis on bridging the “trust deficiency.” For quite some time, a culture of trust surrounding media was the status quo. Simply put, that is no longer the case, and PR pros and journalists have to understand that we are now in an environment where the media is operating at a profound “trust deficit.” Edelman’s recently released “2017 Trust Barometer” revealed that only 47 percent of U.S. citizens trust the media as a whole, and that trust in traditional media has shown the steepest decline in recent years. As PR professionals who work with the traditional media every day, it is imperative we do everything we can to bridge this gap in trust by serving as authentic resources to the members of the media that we work with. The information we give should emphasize transparency and honesty, and it is vital that any sources we provide be credible and ethical.

4. A commitment to working harder and doing better. As emphasized by Tom McKee of WCPO at the close of the panel, if we as PR pros and journalists thought we worked hard before, we now need to push ourselves twice as hard to ensure our stories are accurate and in context. We must accept the reality that we are all facing additional challenges and more scrutiny than ever before. And we must use this new media environment as an opportunity to prove the critical role of our profession: to provide information that matters to the people who need it most.

It is unlikely that the days of “alternative facts” and fake news are going away any time soon. However, by recognizing the ways in which this new media environment is changing, we can start playing by a new set of rules that will allow us to become more successful PR pros and journalists in the long run.


Drew Boehmker is an account executive with Scooter Media and a member of the Cincinnati PRSA blog committee.

Drew Boehmker is an account executive with Scooter Media and a member of the Cincinnati PRSA blog committee.