TUESDAY 3 NOV 2020 10:24 AM


Alberto Lopez Valenzuela, founder and CEO of stakeholder intelligence company alva, speaks to Communicate magazine about the role of the PR industry in an increasingly media-fatigued world. He explores how PRs can focus on sending key messages even if they aren't always good news, and how PR campaigns can be transformed to deal with issues around public and mental health.

Research shows that consumption of traditional media sources has declined over the last few months. Why are we seeing this ‘media fatigue’?

National newspaper brands lost 3m daily digital readers in the second quarter of 2020 after interest in COVID-19 news spiked in March. In Q1, people turned to trusted institutions like the BBC to help them to navigate the changes that were taking place. However, Q2 saw people switching off from traditional sources, as the newspapers shifted from a supportive and informative approach to government COVID policy towards an increasingly hostile position, where the tone of news became more vitriolic and depressing. Ofcom’s research found that around a third (34 per cent) of respondents are now trying to avoid news about coronavirus, compared to 22 per cent in week one of the health crisis, very similar levels to during the Brexit discussions in 2019 (35%), according to findings by the Reuters Institute. Put simply, there’s only so much bad news that people can and want to process at any given time.

How has the media’s positioning of Covid-19 changed since the pandemic began? 

With the ‘fatigue’ setting in, the UK must also deal with COVID coverage plus the Brexit news agenda. Our research shows that the amount of content referencing both COVID and Brexit has gone from a weekly average of around 9,500 pieces of coverage to over 20,000 – a 105% increase and by far the highest total alva has ever recorded. By conflating COVID with Brexit, the media risk positioning the pandemic as a similarly complex ‘can of worms’ where there are no obvious solutions. The media would be wise to instead focus on returning to the supportive, informative tone of Q1. 

What role should PR take, during this difficult period for news consumption habits?

The role of the PR industry and the brands that it represents is important. They need to tackle issues and show that the news agenda is important, no matter how difficult it is to deal with. Given all of this media fatigue, it may be tempting for PRs to attempt to distract readers from the situation with ‘happy stories’, but business needs to engage with these issues in order to stay relevant. Only by dealing with the harder issues – as many are already doing – and by providing a platform for health debate and discussion rather than polarisation, will PR shed negative tags such as ‘spin’.

Against this concerning media outlook, how can brands provide a supportive role to government in promoting messages of safety?

Globally, we’ve seen Governments fail to settle upon clear guidelines and measures to deal with the pandemic – a sluggishness compounded by failures to communicate effectively. As societies deal with the shades of grey of partial opening up, we’ve seen a number of brands – such as Airbnb, Google and Facebook – fill policy gaps out of pure necessity and, perhaps, a desire to create clarity. There is a clear role here for brands to help in this way.

How can PRs focus on key messaging, even if it’s not necessarily good news?

People find uncertainty unsettling. When businesses provide clarity, through their words and actions, they play an active role as responsible members of society. PRs should continue to seek to provide transparency and clarity wherever possible.

 Should companies alter their PR strategies as a result of this media fatigue? Why or why not?

Companies can be successful in turning their creative PR strategies to finding ways to deal with issues around public health, mental health and the health of our nations, by taking a supportive, informative tone. Those that ensure they are part of the collective solution and are engaging with these big ticket issues as part of a healthy societal conversation will be the organisations that gain stakeholder support over the longer-term.