Measuring Media Impact in a Fake News Age

November 12, 2018

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Eighty years have passed since Orson Welles’ radio drama about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth caused widespread hysteria. Though the communication landscape has shifted dramatically since 1938, the event remains a pivotal example of a mass medium’s ability to influence public perception when fiction is misconstrued as fact.

The rise of a fast, accessible internet now gives anyone the power to publish and distribute information. Suddenly, new media outlets can spring up out of nowhere – and not all of them share the traditional old-line media’s sense of responsibility about facts and the truth. These changes have important implications for the companies featured in the news, and for the ways that we measure and evaluate communications.

Today, we don’t just experience media differently. We perceive it differently. 

The way we as consumers perceive media has shifted substantially over time, changing the way we’ve needed to derive intelligence and measure results. Large media organizations rose and evolved as authoritative voices — trusted by the public to provide objective, fact-based information with society’s best interest at heart. While we can debate whether big media always deserved this reputation, the public historically tended to trust the news media.

In 1976, for example, 72% of Americans reported having at least a fair amount of trust in mass media when it comes to “reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly.” By 2016, when the same question was posed, only 32% of Americans reported a fair amount or great deal of trust in mass media (Gallup, 2018).

This drop is no mere fluctuation. The changes that underline it affect us not only as news consumers but as professional advisors to our clients and their brands.

From space invasions to real threats. And real impact. 

While we would no longer believe reports of a space invasion that we read about on the internet or in the check-out aisle, threats to objectivity are very real in today’s news media. And as analysts and communicators, it’s never been more important to measure the impact media has on our clients and their brands.

In this era of calculated, intentional fake news, knowing how — and in what way — your brand is being covered in the media might mean the difference between staving off a reputational crisis before it happens or being caught unprepared swept away by its momentum.

How to measure impact across an omnichannel landscape.

Effective media measurement and evaluation should reflect today’s omni-channel media environment. Teams must observe and measure traditional and social media coverage across platforms on a consistent basis. This information should be analyzed with measureable performance indicators to understand the impact media coverage has on beliefs, perceptions and behaviors relevant to a company and its brand.

Regular, ongoing measurement reporting serves as a baseline indicator of performance. But it can also be an early warning system for issues that may be driven by erroneous or purposefully misleading content. Constantly measuring and evaluating over time helps protect clients from targeted fake news attacks — using the data to quickly inform communications responses.

Measurement means results. Even before a crisis happens

Understanding the impact fake news can have on brands — and delineating between reality and falsehood through strategically measuring media coverage — elevates the importance of thoughtful media measurement. This is how we stay ahead of potential reputational crises.

By targeting media for evaluation, tracking quantitative changes over time, and holistically tracking omnichannel results, companies can measure the results that matter, and get out in front of content and issues long before they can impact their reputation.

That’s true whether the threat is a Martian invasion or a brand-threatening fake news story.

This post is part of an ongoing series of content for the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication’s Measurement Month. Analysts from FleishmanHillard and its TRUE Global Intelligence and Social & Innovation groups will be sharing content throughout the month on topics that are central to the current state of measurement.