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Media Relations in the Clickbait Era

by | May 27, 2015 | Public Relations, Social Media

They’re everywhere. In your inbox, on your newsfeed. Clickbait headlines have consumed digital publications and social channels, but where did the concept come from? Why are media outlets using them? And what impact do they have on media relations?

Back in the 1890s, during the Spanish-American war, William Randolf Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (World) began focusing on melodramatic, exaggerated, sensationalist headlines to get attention.

These stories would often have little to no factual merit, but the content was so emotionally and visually stimulating that it piqued the curiosity of readers. As the media war between Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s World escalated, their sensationalist tactics gave birth to what is now referred to as “yellow journalism.”

Clickbait is the Internet’s yellow journalism. With the number of digital publications on the rise, players in the digital media world are constantly warring with one another for impressions. Websites resort to using sensationalist headlines to increase page impressions, seemingly increasing the desirability and advertising value of their websites.

Though the value placed on number of impressions a website receives has become less significant than unique visits and qualified leads it produces, for some reason high impression counts still equate more advertising dollars.

This need for impressions also heavily impacts public relations activities. After all, the higher the AVE (Advertising Value Equivalency) of an article, the more successful the article placement is considered to be.

Here are some examples of types of clickbait headlines digital publications are throwing into the fray:

Bait and Switch—Headlines that make the article appear to be about something that it’s not. At all.

Curiosity Gap—Headlines that pique the interest of a reader because they feel like they may not know the answer, or to validate that they’re right. An example of this is “she mixes baking soda and vinegar and you won’t believe what happens!” (We all know what actually happens)

You’ll never guess what the next big thing in PR is!

Rage-lines— Headlines purposely crafted to instill rage in readers, thus enticing them to click and comment. These headlines tend to be more political in nature and typically evoke strong, negative emotions in readers.

How does the public feel about clickbait?

Many readers are generally aware of clickbait, and can easily identify it. So if a publication is consistently employing clickbait tactics, readers are less likely to see that publication as a valuable resource (or are less likely to click on articles).

This means that journalists also need to fight to develop creative, compelling headlines that are not only intriguing to click on, but won’t make the reader feel short-changed. This in turn could lead to negative feelings, which may increase the number of bounces a web page receives, or could even garner a lot of negative feedback and backlash in the comments.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule (see: http://www.buzzfeed.com and http://www.upworthy.com.) Some people will willingly give in to clickbait because they find the content to be amusing.

What does clickbait mean for PR and journalist relations?

Journalists can lose credibility
Clickbait doesn’t only affect a publication as a whole. Public relations professionals may be wary of pitching to a journalist in fear that it may impact their client’s credibility. Or it may become difficult to conduct esteemed interviews if the journalist’s reputation is already tarnished. Reputation is incredibly important to journalists, and using unjustified sensationalism can have a deep impact on their credibility and relations with other media professionals.

Public relations professionals need to pitch compelling stories, not headlines
Public relations professionals still need to prove to the world that they aren’t spin doctors, and that they have compelling information to share with the public. That’s why when pitching to journalists, PR professionals need to provide compelling information that doesn’t need sensationalism to be interesting.

Journalists should be mindful of PR professionals and their clients when crafting articles
It goes both ways. Journalists need to be mindful of how they choose to present a PR professional’s story, and to make sure that they uphold the integrity and credibility of the agency and/or company.

TL;DR: PR professionals and journalists need to work together to minimize sensationalism to maintain the integrity of media relations and to decrease the use of clickbait-headlines.

More reading:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/clickbait-what-is/382545/

http://www.buzzfeed.com/bensmith/why-buzzfeed-doesnt-do-clickbait#.sjKYqoMbD

http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/258985/the-real-problem-with-clickbait/

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Sara Chisholm

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