Millennials and Media: Barometer of Future PR

Two recent studies show some trends among the millennial generation and their media use that may be a barometer of things to come in the larger population in years ahead.

One study reported in the current issue of the Journal of Communication Inquiry  offers interesting perspective about teen news consumption based on interviews with 61 racially diverse high schoolers. It’s easy to parrot the complaint that young people don’t pay attention to news like they should, but this study shows a more nuanced understanding of youth and the news.
The fact that teens are not reading traditional newspapers and tuning in to conventional television news programs does not mean they are indifferent to news. Rather, they are skeptical about the notion of “objectivity” in the news, both in the sense that it isn’t always so objective but also that objectivity does not necessarily inform them fully. For example, they prefer Facebook and social media, where they are exposed to links from “friends” as well as multiple comments. In interviews, teens said this better enables them to hear real pros and cons on issues and not the obtuse glaze of objectivity (the words “obtuse glaze” are mine:-) ). The young people interviewed probably don’t realize they are embracing the old concept of a public sphere of dialog about issues but that’s what they are doing. It’s the peer discussion more than the formal presentation format of news that excites them. As others have said, news is now a process, not a product.
For the same reason, teens gravitate to blogs, fake news shows like Jon Stewart, talk radio, and opinionated current events shows because they feel the discussions that ensue are more substantive and the implications more evident than in conventional news sources. 
One note of evident critical thinking from the teens: they criticize news sites for content that seems more entertaining than informative. In other words, they notice the appeal to reach audiences for advertisers can overwhelm a public interest motivation. 
Meanwhile, another study in Australia, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in late November (hat tip PR professor colleague Tom Watson who shared this on Twitter), showed that 61% of Facebook users aged 18-29 feel they spend too much time on the social media site. This sentiment among the young people was nearly double that of the 753 Australian Facebook users surveyed in the study. What’s more, 47% in that 18-29 age group considered disliking Facebook for good because of feeling that it has become a time waster.
Could it be that the young are starting to think of Facebook as “so five years ago?” 
Well, probably not. They also said they would feel left out if they disconnected altogether. My sense is the reason that the young are more likely to say they spend too much time on Facebook is because they young actually DO spend way too much time on Facebook. As the study concluded, users will probably keep their Facebook (and other social media accounts) but usage will probably go down in the future.
The take-away for PR pros about both of these studies is that we should pay attention to “leading edge” studies like this. There may be contradictory studies, since generalization is always a matter of degree. But these studies could be a barometer of a change in news and social media use in the future. People may  use social media less, and when they are there, it will be for more substantive and functional reasons than what has been the case for many in the past. 
So PR people will have to consider:
  • the reach of publicity is not based on subscribers and viewers, but on shares and comments;
  • the comment sections of news sites are not an after-thought to the article, but the place where the real PR action is;
  • providing content that is specifically relevant and genuinely substantive is more important than catching eyeballs with anything that titillates;
  • allowing for not just dialogue, but debate if the content put forth is about contemporary issues;
  • public relations is once again about the “public sphere.”

Media Use of Twitter

A PR manager in West Michigan emailed me this morning to ask my opinion about the recent study by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism about how media organizations are using Twitter. Her question came from commentary about the study on the Gigaom blog.

My own opinion about this is long and nuanced. I have read the Pew report and others like it, as well as some that contradict it, albeit the latter are anecdotal or prescriptive in nature. Just yesterday I also read the latest Journalism & Communication Monographs (subscription required), published by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). This monograph (i.e. extra lengthy article) is based on participant observation in newsrooms and focus groups with news consumers. The theme of the article is that news is moving from product to process, and while there is variance in how newsrooms respond to this, it is still true that many reporters resist new social media aspects of their jobs as “more work.” I have some sympathy for this. When I was reporter (before even the Internet, much less social media), the news process involved some research and interviewing, writing and revision, and then sending a finished piece on deadline to the appropriate editor. Then you were done and on to the next assignment. Today, reporters are expected to actually pay attention to comments about their work, respond to those comments, write blog posts as well as articles, update articles they thought were done to keep the web site and app fresh, and so on. 

That may be why in general media organizations as well as individual reporters tend to use Twitter primarily to tweet headlines with link to main story. I also suspect the author of the Gigaom blog is right to assert that these tweets are primarily automated.  A recent view of my own Twitter news list shows a handful of media–local and national, mainstream and online–tend to basically tweet headlines.

I couldn’t find any examples at the moment, but I know a few reporters who have conversations with readers, solicit story ideas or information for story ideas, and respond to audience comments on Twitter and Facebook and in comment sections of web sites. The GRPressNews  tweet above is not bad in that it touts a “live chat” and not just an article–at least the ‘old’ media is using some new tools. 

But they could do more, which is what we in PR call ‘engagement.’ I think that is starting to happen, and will happen more. But change takes time, and this change is a big one. It is a paradigm shift where, in business and economic terms, every aspect of the journalistic process is changing: the “production” process in which news starts on a blog or tweet and not always initiated by a journalist or news release, the move from news as “product” to “process” or even service that is ongoing versus single transaction, the “supply chain” of contributors to a story including comments, the “distribution channels” which are not just trucks and antennae but sharing sites, re-tweets, aggregators and readers and so forth.

The changes we’re seeing in media, the migration to online, in everything from the New York Times to the Detroit News to the Grand Rapids Press, may accelerate not just where but how news is produced. And that will require a cultural change inside newsrooms. The subject of news routines is well explained in the 1997 book “Social Meanings of News” by Dan Berkowitz. A sequel came out last year, “Cultural Meanings of News,” which may already need an update.

Everyone, not just reporters, have to get used to this idea, and the related concept that communication is not one-way, not even two-way, but multi-staged group conversation. I was thinking just recently about all the “extra work” I do just as a news consumer to organize, aggregate, curate and share content. It used to be you read one or two newspapers, listened to the radio in your car, watched a little TV news at home at night and that was it. But with all the freedom and choice afforded “news consumers” comes the responsibility as well.

Public relations professionals also have a ways to go. The trades are full of stories and studies showing how many people only tweet headlines to news releases, or link back to product pages. Other studies show how few corporations or nonprofits have blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages and other active social media sites. The learning curve is there for all of us.

But given what I mentioned above, the resounding mantra is that “every organization is a media organization.” That means everyone has content that they are putting out there on all the hot channels and platforms, including Twitter. But, if everyone indeed is doing that, that means to get audience share you have to do more, and that means engagement not mere distribution. That means having conversations, not making proclamations. The media and everyone else needs to re-read the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto.’

What interests me most is the ‘old’ (1962) Jurgen Habermas notion of the public sphere and how social media is making the concept more relevant and popular again. The news media has less control and is more of a participant in the public discussion of issues  of our day. In fact, there are several new organizations set up on this topic, including t
he Public Sphere Guide and the Public Sphere Project. You can engage with them on Twitter or play their Facebook games 🙂