Clickbait: The Implications of Misleading Headlines



Most of us have experienced the annoyance of clicking on a compelling headline only to quickly realize we’ve been baited.  The story doesn’t deliver the promise of the headline and inevitably, we stop reading. By then, it’s too late. The website has its page view and we’ve become a metric.

Misleading headlines are everywhere and for PR professionals, they can be a major source of frustration. Not only can they dramatically impact perception for the client, organization and important stakeholders, they can also fuel the spread of false information.   

There is a discernible difference between an injured athlete telling a journalist there is a good chance he’ll be back in the starting lineup next game if treatment goes well, and a subsequent headline that reads: “Athlete X may not play Sunday.” 

Sure, there’s a chance it could just be a difference of opinion between glass half full and glass half empty type of personalities, but I don’t think most PR practitioners buy that.  It’s not hard to guess which headline attracts more eyeballs.   

This past week, Hope Solo (Disclosure: Solo is a PRO client) appeared on CBS This Morning and among other things, discussed her widely known concerns over the Zika virus, while also sharing what it would mean to win gold in Rio and achieve what had never been done before by any team – win back-to-back World Cup and Olympic titles.  

In light of the fact the interview did not break any news or discuss anything that hadn’t been addressed before, it was maddening to see a headline posted by another news outlet being shared across Twitter that read:  “Solo unlikely to play in Rio Games.”  What?? Did the editor who wrote that headline even watch the interview?

Sure, that headline made for a better storyline and was a more enticing share, but it was also highly inaccurate.  And in journalism, accuracy should still matter a great deal.  It should matter more than clicks and page views.

In this case, the story itself did not at all characterize Solo’s comments that way, but in an age where so many people only scroll the headlines streaming down their digital feeds, headlines drive the narrative.

So, how do we as PR professionals deal with this reality? For starters, we’ll have to accept that in this data-driven digital media landscape, the boundaries with headlines will continue to be pushed. And that means having to manage more issues after the fact – from dealing with upset clients and executives to putting out the many fires these situations can create internally and externally.

But, we should also insist on media accountability. PR pros who voice their concerns with media might not always get things retracted or revised, but there are almost always benefits to dialogue.  Often times, it can lead to the desired editorial changes and/or frank, productive discussions that can actually strengthen media relationships.

(Editor’s Note: Hope Solo headline was later revised in an updated version of the story)