We want our cake and we want to eat it too… Communications between people and people with brands has become so emotionally charged that we are living in a sensationalist world. But what does sensationalism mean in terms of PR for your brand?

Sensationalism is when you use “exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.” (Dictionary.com) If you are acting in a sensationalist way you’re likely trying to sway public opinion by presenting biased impressions. Brands can do it when they are trying to reach their audiences. But every coin has two sides, which means that your audience can do it as well.

There are behaviours associated with sensationalism, and you would be wise to monitor this type of behaviour to avoid potential pitfalls. They include:

  • Omitting facts – intentionally (this is just as bad as lying, BTW)
  • Appealing to emotions – not a negative depending on your intentions
  • Stirring up controversy – Are you trying to create a distraction from the real problem or what?
  • Being deliberately obtuse – we all know you understand what you’re doing…
  • Drawing unnecessary attention – AKA Drama Queen

While sensationalism does happen in the media, and has throughout history, it also happens on social media and other channels your brand tries to build relationships with customers on. We’re living in the new media landscape where EVERYONE can publish – whether it’s factual or not.

“Faux” rage is the new road rage

There are some pretty extreme cases of road rage happening these days. However, equally disturbing is the amount of “faux” rage happening on the internet. It can be triggered by anything – slow to respond customer service channels, a policy someone doesn’t agree with, bad service, assumed guilt of a crime… You name it and it could set someone off. In fact, sometimes, people just complain for the sake of complaining because it’s easy to go on the attack online when you’re safely (and relatively anonymously) behind a computer.

We have become so accustomed to getting what we want when we want it that if it’s not perfect then an online witch hunt gets started. And it’s so easy to join in – the mob grows one click at a time with each favourite, like, share, etc. Without fail, people will find other people to rage with, whether their opinions align or not. There are people who just like to create conflict – those are your trolls.

What does sensationalism mean for brands?

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a sensationalist attack, whether it’s through a negative review, some bad press, or even a string of social media posts about your brand, you need to be able to deal with it in the best way possible to avoid bad PR.

Listen up

The first thing you should do is identify whether there is any truth to what your customer is saying. If so, what steps can you take to find a solution? This can be tough because you need to swallow your pride and see it from the customer’s point of view. If there is no truth (or it’s a random person from across the globe who has never interacted with your company), the best thing to do is to ignore it and focus on your customers who are speaking about you positively. For example, if you had a bad review, run a loyalty campaign to get positive reviews to push that negativity down the list.


In an escalating situation on social media where you are clearly being trolled, humour is a great tool to diffuse the situation. Not only is a non-confrontational way to respond, but it also shows that you have a thick skin and you can take a joke. It humanizes your brand, which is ultimately what you want to do.

Be nice

The worst thing you can do is respond with hostility – your only response should be to take emotion out of it. Respond to correct facts about your brand or to escalate the conversation if necessary.

Click bait

Click bait, if you don’t know, is when someone uses a sensationalist headline to get people to click on an article or video. Usually when the audience gets to the link destination it’s not all that exciting and the headline doesn’t really match the content. While you want readers/viewers, don’t bait your audience in this way, it will ultimately backfire and tick them off. Do this a couple of times and you will find that you have less traffic coming to see your content.

Media pitching

Media outlets are all competing for the same attention spans you are. While some media outlets fall to the temptation of sensationalist stories and headlines, others simply adjust their approach to match how people are consuming content. When you are pitching media, create short, bite-sized pitches that are almost listicle like. Your story needs to be able to be consumed easily. Follow the trends to find the best pitch (ie. Life hacks).

A version of this article was originally published on the SongBird Marketing Communications Blog.