Monday, December 10, 2012

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."

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