Reputation and the News Media: 5 Research-Driven Insights

Building and protecting an organization’s reputation is a top priority for public relations professionals and corporate decision-makers. Indeed, the 2012 GAP study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism finds that PR professionals view their influence on reputation as the number one way to gauge the success of public relations.

Dimensions of Reputation

Academic research published by Craig Carroll, a senior fellow at the Reputation Institute and visiting scholar at NYU Stern School, and his colleagues in Corporate Reputation and the News Media (Routledge, 2011) shows there are at least three dimensions to the concept of reputation with news media reporting influencing each dimension in different ways. These three dimensions are:

Matthew Ragas

Starting with organizational prominence, Carroll and colleagues find that the more news media attention an organization receives, the more likely the public is to recognize that organization. No shocker there. For example, just a few short years ago, many of us had never heard of Groupon. Now, after a barrage of media attention, even if we still haven’t signed up for Groupon, we’re likely familiar with this deal-of-the-day company.

Importantly, reputation is about much more than simply visibility. Just because a firm has earned a lot of media coverage and we recognize a brand name doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily have a favorable impression of it.

This takes us to the second dimension of reputation: organizational esteem. The content of media coverage is at least as important—if not more so, in many cases—than simply the amount of coverage. Research conducted by academics in the U.S. (Carroll and colleagues), Italy (Elena Dalpiaz and Davide Ravasi of Bocconi University) and Germany (Sabine Einwiller of Johannes Gutenberg-University and colleagues) finds that the overall tone of media attention towards an organization—in other words, whether stories are positive, neutral or negative—is correlated with the degree to which the public likes, admires, and trusts an organization.

In general, the greater the level of media favorability, the greater the level of public esteem and vice versa. Revisiting the Groupon example, a wave of negative press has likely reduced the public’s positive feelings towards this brand, while sustained positive news would help boost it.

Finally, multiple studies led by May May Meijer of Shahrzad News, Jan Kleinnijenhuis of VU University Amsterdam, and Spiro Kiousis of the University of Florida find that the content of media coverage also influences which topics and characteristics the public associate with a company and think about when forming their opinions.

Whether BP likes it or not, given the intense media coverage in summer 2010, the American public for a long time to come will closely associate this brand’s reputation with the Gulf oil spill and environmental issues. In general, we are “cognitive misers” meaning we don’t ransack our brains for every piece of information on something before forming an opinion. Instead, the handful of company characteristics that are most salient to us—often due in part to these elements receiving heavy play in the news—become the yardsticks that we use to evaluate the reputations of companies.      

Five Research-Driven Insights

So now that we have reviewed the dimensions of reputation, let’s take a look at five research-driven insights that are applicable to media relations and reputation management:

  1. Think quality over quantity: While every brand needs to earn a certain base level of recognition among the public before a reputation can even be formed, a hefty stack of media clips alone does not equal a positive organizational reputation. For established organizations, more attention should be paid to the contents of these clips. Questions to ask: Are our key messages getting across? What is the overall tone of the coverage?

  2. Know your media ecosystem: Research demonstrates that, as with any social system, the news media has leaders and it has followers. Journalists constantly engage in cross-checking to validate their sense of the news. Learn which journalists set the overall media agenda in your field and re-double your efforts to strengthen your relationships with these individuals. This may mean journalists at elite media outlets or it could be bloggers; what matters is determining who are the respected media voices that others often turn to.

  3. Presentation matters: Research also shows that which topics public relations professionals decide to highlight in PR materials and how that information is packaged (i.e., the content and tone of the messages) impacts news content and audience perception. Journalists are hardly stenographers for corporate interests, but the realities of smaller newsrooms and more stories to file mean that smartly-packaged newsworthy materials are at a premium. Emphasize topics where you are at a reputational advantage.

  4. Know your audience: Just as the packaging of your message matters, so does who you select to deliver that message and interact with the media. The appropriate spokesperson for one audience may not be the best choice for another. For example, the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer finds that informed publics in the U.S. perceive academics and experts as the most credible spokespeople, while participants in the 2012 Gorkana Survey of Financial Journalists perceive CEOs as the most credible source. While a business journalist likely wants to hear from a CEO, a science journalist might prefer an expert.

  5. Words and deeds: Media relations efforts can certainly have a meaningful impact on media coverage and an organization’s reputation. That said, we should never discount the influence of an organization’s actions and policies on the media’s reporting and the public’s perceptions. Words and deeds must be aligned. Organizations that simply “talk the talk” but don’t ultimately “walk the walk” (i.e., practice what you preach!) are at a risk of reputational decline. The news is ultimately at least partially grounded in reality.      

Media Management Matters

As demonstrated by this review of the research, media management is a far from trivial matter when it comes to organizational reputation. While direct experience is often most influential in shaping one’s opinion of a brand, much of what we learn about a brand comes to us second-hand courtesy of the media, whether that be via traditional news organizations, bloggers, or friends on social networking channels. Effective media management alone may not result in a strong reputation, but under investing in this area almost certainly puts a brand at risk.

Matthew W. Ragas (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, where he researches the relationship between organizational public relations efforts, news media coverage, and public opinion. 

  • Karen Spillers

    The best way to manage your brand (how you want to be perceived) as well as reputation (how you will be perceived) is to manage performance, actions, and character. In today’s “social” environment the truth will be told one way or another. And even the best communicator can’t put lipstick on a pig, because it is still a pig.