At the end of last year Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, described the Internet as a “cesspool where false information thrives.” He advocated that “brands are the solution, not the problem.” While many saw great irony in Schmidt's comments, it's hard not to agree: most of what passes for information on the Internet is at best regurgitation, and much of the rest is vapid opinion or self-serving nonsense.
In the good old days, before said Internet, it was pretty easy to know who was saying what and why, and to form a reasonable opinion on how credible the information was. Back then, the media that mattered were massive, and they had a brand, and they had a certain credibility: ABC, New York Times, BBC, NewsWeek, NPR. They even had handy signposts to indicate when they strayed into overt opinion – the Editorial Page, for example – and they published retractions when they screwed up, which they did a lot. They had editors, even. And Ombudsmen. Really.
Now all that's shrinking away, and many say good riddance. We now have the wisdom of the crowd and we certainly have a more democratic media. Everyone has a voice. The problem is, we don't know who to believe and who to trust. As Peter Steiner cartooned it, “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.”
This isn't a new problem, it has just got a lot worse. Back when I was teaching Mass Comm classes it was labeled “source credibility” and was something academics studied and organizations strived towards. Public relations professionals aspired to be seen as wise, informed, trustworthy sources of news. Hack and Flacks traded on news as a commodity.
Today, the burden of being a credible source lies not with massive news organizations but has fallen back on the PR professional and the organizations they represent. This is where Schmidt has it right: more than ever before, PR is about brand preservation and about creating a voice for the brand that can be trusted. It is about providing valuable information. PR needs to assume many of the responsibilities that used to be the function of the mass media, and let the new social media do what they do best – express opinion and be a critic. To paraphrase Steiner, “On the Internet, everybody is a watchdog.”