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Last March, the world changed overnight. No sector was unaffected. And the ramifications of that shift are still being felt.

British communications professionals are just now being to see the long-term impacts in media consumption. Newspapers suffered. Distribution models were reconsidered as commutes took a long hiatus.

City AM, one of the three principal free papers in London, went from distributing 85,700 copies a day in February 2020 to zero to months later. The company placed some reporters on furlough while the rest of the staff funnelled resources into improving their digital offering.

Social media use rose as people sought connection. Daily TV broadcasts became a lifeline for audiences whose lives were directly impacted by the policy updates and case numbers reported. Public trust in the media soared: according to Kantar, in March and April 2020, UK consumers said that, due to the dearth of information available, they trusted national media more than their doctors.

As an industry, we need to have our finger to the pulse of these changes in consumption habits. We need to be forward-thinking, anticipating tomorrow’s news today. But this future focus may paradoxically put us out-of-step with the current reality.

This March Kantar surveyed 700 senior in-house communications professionals and some 6,000 consumers from across Europe. Their study focussed on consumption of news, as opposed to recreational media consumption. The results showed that, in the UK, professional perception is ahead of the curve – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

  • Professionals overstated the importance of social media, podcasts, and influencers. A large proportion of consumers named social influencers and social media as channels that are becoming less, not more important ways to access news.
  • Only 9% of UK adults claim to listen to podcasts in an average week.
  • Professionals similarly underestimate the importance of TV and newspapers. Television is still the most dominant source of news for consumers (even for younger audiences of 16-24 years old). Newspapers/ newspaper websites are not far behind.

The data raises more questions than answers. Has the pandemic created a new dawn for established media channels? Is the hype surrounding newer channels overstated? Has negative news about social media algorithms, privacy breaches and the pandemic put the inexorable rise of social media and sector news segregation into doubt? Only time will tell.

What these results do show is that the challenge currently facing PRs is not the surrender of TV news to social media. Consumers still turning to TV for both breaking news and in-depth features on current affairs.

Here’s another statistic that may trouble people in public relations: only 21% of Kantar’s respondents said they always notice the source of the news they consume on social media. This may point to a declining importance attached to breaking a story in a particular trusted outlet. Conversely, perhaps certain ‘toxic’ or ‘lowbrow’ publications aren’t as harmful as feared.

This is not to say levels of trust are unimportant or unvaried. The public does place high levels of public mistrust of news from social media and news aggregators. But in today’s culture where consumers’ attention has been pulled away from branding, professionals must guard against overstating consumer trust towards more established broadcasters.

This shift towards a more outlet-agnostic approach may be a legacy of the pandemic that lives on even after the last variant is squashed out.

Olivia Prentice is an account executive at Cognito's London office