This is a time of radical disruption to the economy, to our personal and professional lives. As a key instrument for capturing and reflecting the zeitgeist, the media continues to play a central role in shaping the UK’s experience of COVID-19, its emergence from lockdown and the recession economy to come.

While the reporting of trivial issues often requires the media to entertain, its ultimate duty is to inform. This is particularly true in such strained times, when journalists have an even greater responsibility to update an anxious but expectant public. The media is also a vehicle for conveying government guidance for the nation, as well as offering a reassuring window into how other people and businesses are faring in difficult conditions.

Infinite Global has written about how ‘New Rules and New Risks’ have seen the nature of reputation management change radically in the opening half of 2020. A significant component of this changing risk landscape has been short- and long-term shifts in the media industry, not least in the UK.

Whether for the purposes of reputation management, issues management or knowledge sharing, organisations wishing to engage with the media need to understand the prevailing sense of ‘new normal’ across the media landscape and the economy more widely. Those that transition most smoothly to this new reality will be those that thrive.

“Organisations wishing to engage with the media need to understand the prevailing sense of ‘new normal’ across the media landscape.”

Fleet Street: The acceleration of change

The pandemic and its resultant recession continue to take a toll on the media as a profession. From the furloughing of journalists to the potentially permanent loss of advertising revenues, the industry is being forced to address several challenges. It is by no means guaranteed that Fleet Street is insulated from surging insolvencies and restructuring, just as the rest of the UK economy.

Certain longer-term trends are now being accelerated. For media and brands alike, a digital-first approach to tailored content creation and dissemination is nothing new; nor is ever greater reliance on social media as a core distribution channel. However, decreased print demand (forcing the cessation of some print editions) and a concomitant drop in print advertising and surge in online traffic have prompted publishers to double down on digital content and platforms. Consumption preferences are being mirrored by media services, much as they always have.

“From the furloughing of journalists to the potentially permanent loss of advertising revenues, the industry is being forced to address several challenges.”

At present, this means the need for speed has never been greater. Exclusives, breaking news and being first to publish is now more important than ever. As the Lockdown Recession slowly passes and a new normal embeds across the economy, this need for communications speed will not disappear.

The trust intangible

In times of uncertainty, trust is tested. As misinformation multiplies (Infinite Global has written previously about the risks posed by the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’), separating fact from conjecture, and genuine specialists from speculators, becomes ever more important. Since the beginning of the pandemic, question marks have hovered around the reliability of information being made publicly available. With mounting pressure on understaffed newsrooms to win the speed-to-publish foot race, rigorous fact-checking becomes more difficult. In this new reality, the ability to demonstrate credibility and accuracy in public messaging has quickly become a distinguishing feature of media reporting, both for those in the media and for those informing the media.

Our advice to our corporate and professional services clients seeking to engage with media during these turbulent times is clear: remember three core rules of engagement. Firstly, ensure authenticity: engage only on those issues in which you offer genuine experience and expertise. Avoid speculation and make clear the dividing line between established fact and any assumptions you make. Secondly, focus carefully: choose your moment to engage wisely. If your expertise is directly called upon, prepare in the usual way – consider your audience and cultivate a concise core message. If you are proactively offering input, tailor it and ‘own’ your niche. Thirdly, differentiate to stand out: separate yourself from competitive noise, either through uniqueness of perspective or through creative and impactful delivery.

The new reputational risk landscape

Expert insight, and the ability to share it in simple terms, remains the order of the day. Whether consumers observe a slow news day or watch a media maelstrom unfold, the role and duties of journalists do not change. Neither does the primary role of their sources. The age-old values of informing and reporting remain.

A founding principle of effective media engagement is to ‘be first or be fresh’. This applies to the media itself – a breaking news story can hinge on little more than a headline, while subsequent detail can be slower to eke out but provides new angles that sustain stories through successive news cycles. Those engaging with the media must also be either quick to engage and explain, or alternatively seek to provide something more: for example, a deeper analysis of overlooked information and unexamined implications can provide a ‘second wave’ to any emergent news story. Any organisation or individual with the insight and inclination to provide accurate commentary that adds value to the public arena, should look to engage in media relations with confidence.

“Organisations need to think carefully about their words and actions – and their justification for both. The media will scrutinise sharply any brand or individual failing to do so.”

At all times remain alive to the changing risk landscape in which industries and organisations are now operating. COVID-19 has intensified scrutiny of the role organisations (not least in the private sector) should play in the post-pandemic economy. More than ever, questions are being asked around what constitutes good corporate citizenship and how public companies must better balance their concern for shareholder value with that of their stakeholders more widely. Just as some brands have tackled COVID-19 in a way that has boosted reputations as good employers and contributors to society, others have mis-stepped. Organisations need to think carefully about their words and actions – and their justification for both. The media will scrutinise sharply any brand or individual failing to do so.

Times change, and so do we. But change means adapting and transitioning, not radical resetting. Shock forces have rocked the media world before, but their profound impact is mitigated by those who react and adapt.