Crisis Communications: Plan to Overcome Challenges Tied to News Media Deserts

pittsburgh news media desert

Pittsburgh is not unlike a lot of major cities in America in that it’s become a news media desert, which is not to say an information desert. The two would be different things.

While Pittsburghers, like most Americans, are drowning in a sea of digital information, their local news media landscape has become devoid of a strong news media industry. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s last major news daily is now down to only two days per week as a print newspaper – Thursday and Sunday.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the other major “newspaper” in town has gone digital for the most part. Other Pittsburgh business and specialty publications have followed the same trend.

Yes, the days of the print newspaper are long gone, but we’re not here to wax nostalgic about that. What’s important about this is without a robust traditional newspaper daily you are left with a skeleton news staff that simply can’t cover all of the news that’s out there. So, even if their end product is an online news site, you still don’t have the reporting staff to give you the amount of information you once took for granted.

Today, if you have a major announcement of any kind that’s important to Western Pennsylvanians, and you rely on the news media to get the word out in Pittsburgh, your options are the shrinking staffs of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Tribune-Review, the Pittsburgh Business Times, the three TV network affiliates (that are more likely to cover a monkey that escaped from the zoo than your story), and a very sparse group of radio news reporters.  Otherwise, you’re left with niche trades, blogs, a podcaster or two, and some social media influencers. This constitutes a news media desert.

The Impact of News Deserts on Crisis Communications

So, what happens if you have a crisis communications situation and you need to get the word out?

Well, if it’s a sensational event like an explosion on a work site or a mass shooting event, you will find some very receptive reporters at the local TV stations. But if the subject matter is a bit more complex and less sensational, like a bankruptcy filing or major business litigation, don’t count on the local media to cover it.  And if it does, it will likely choose only one side of the story and cover it from that angle.

Gone are the days when you could expect both sides of a story to receive fair and equal time on TV or in more long-form media. This is partly due to staffing and limited resources. Newsrooms have grown accustomed to getting one side of a story from the source and paying lip service to the other side in the interest of time. But the other reason is that many in the news media choose a singular narrative from which to tell a story. In other words, the pretense of neutrality has been dropped. Bias is more transparent and unapologetic.

That’s why when you are faced with a crisis in most cities, your first challenge will be how to get the word out to the right people without much help from the news media.

Overcoming News Deserts

The first thing to do is make sure your leadership understands these new facts of journalistic life. Do it long before there’s a crisis. Educate your team on how you are prepared to communicate in a crisis in spite of news deserts in all of your local markets.

PESO for Crisis Communications

Next, understand the marketing principles behind the PESO model and apply them to your crisis management plans. The PESO model stands for Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned. It was created by PR industry veteran Gini Dietrich and represents a catchy summary of what most industry veterans already understand.

When it comes to communication, you have four ways to get the word out. Paid is advertising, sponsored ads, sponsored content and types of content where there is a transaction involved. Google Ads falls within Paid. In a crisis, especially in a news desert, it is worth exploring how you will employ a paid communication strategy.

Earned media is traditionally known as publicity, because you don’t pay for the news media coverage. In marketing terms, it’s something you earn through a story’s newsworthiness and timeliness. In a crisis, newsworthiness and timeliness are often self-evident, but still, Earned media is all news media that might cover the story on its merits. Make sure you have good media lists, relationships and plans for leveraging the power of this in a crisis, even if the landscape has shrunk.

social media mobShared media is social media and other platforms where you don’t have control over the platform itself but you have greater control over the content and who you can reach through the platform.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, LinkedIn and others. You are not an owner, but a user of the platform, subject to the platform’s Terms of Service. It’s important to plan for how Shared media will play a role in compensating for the lack of news media presence, but equally important to know that the people in charge of these platforms could censor or ban certain of your content from being shared.

The fourth pillar of the PESO model is Owned.  Think about your blog, or website, where you have 100 percent control over the content that is housed on the vehicle. You can add to this category videos you create, traditional print newsletters and eNewsletters you distribute. In each of these cases, you have the most control over the creation and distribution of the media channel. In cases where you have to work around a news media desert, the Owned component of your plan may be the most important.

But it can only be effective if you plan in advance and make sure you know who all of your most important stakeholders will be in any crisis, how you will reach them online or offline in the event of a crisis.

One thing to note about the terminology surrounding the word “Owned.”  In 2022, the word can now be a little misleading, particularly at times of crisis, because you don’t actually own the digital real estate for the channel. Your web hosting service owns the servers for your website or blog. A podcast host site owns the platform where your podcast may sit. Companies like MailChimp may own the platform you use for blast emails. Nearly everything you do in terms of communication is likely to be carried over a platform you don’t truly own. So, when you are in the midst of a crisis, it’s increasingly possible that the very companies you depend on could turn on you, depending on the unpopularity of your position or how effectively the mob has framed the story. For crisis communications situations, a more accurate word may be “Rented,” as in PESR. But that wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it as the original PESO acronym.

Plan Early

As you can see, early planning is the key when faced with a news media desert. You can no longer count on the news media to help you spread awareness of problems or solutions when faced with a crisis communications problem.

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