The public relations sector of the media industry is going through an evolution as much as the rest of the industry. Digitisation has led to massive changes in traditional media, as is well known, but what does this mean for PR professionals? Well, from a journalist’s perspective, they will have to adapt, too, to stay relevant to their clients.

PR is actually going through a purple patch. Business is good because a significant portion of advertising budgets has been redirected away from display and brand advertising in both print and on the internet. ‘Native advertising’ (advertorial or sponsored copy, with or without a clear indication that it is being paid for), is increasingly popular among clients and is the domain of the PR specialist.

But there has been a downside. Disintermediation – the splintering of supply with writers often going direct to readers – due to reduced or total lack of barriers to entry, especially in blogging and social media, means that PR professionals are being increasingly challenged to determine where to concentrate their efforts.

If there are now 200 places they can place a story compared with only 20 some years ago, for example, then they have to be much more discerning about where and how they place that story.

Although there’s evidence new PR jobs and corporate writing are picking up at least some of the slack from journalism downsizing among mainstream media, the task of reaching the “public” and “relating” to it is becoming much more complex.

My contention is that this complexity poses new challenges for PRs to demonstrate value-add for clients. And the opportunities offered by social media are not necessarily a one-way street. Social media thrives on the apparent value in people’s opinions being expressed honestly and that is often – to be honest – not what clients are always looking for from their PRs.

The two main themes, then, are:

  • Proliferation of sources of news and views
  • Increasing demand for integrity through customer experiences and honest opinion.

The two, of course, twist and turn about each other, not always acting in concert. What it means is that the general press release is of declining value to clients and the value-add from good PRs is their ability to identify the main influencers within an industry sector and furnish these journalists or bloggers with a higher level of information and access.

From the journalists’ point of view, they want to be trusted more by the PRs, in terms of, say, off-the-record or background conversations, and also want to trust the PRs to not sell them a pup.

Sub-themes include:

  •  Decline in cover price and subscription revenue leading to greater reliance on advertising
  • Advertising agents relying on statistics on click-throughs and page impressions to assess the impact of particular media
  • Readers spending less time on individual stories, discouraging detailed news and analysis (what’s the point of spending four hours writing a story to get the same number of click-throughs as spending 10 minutes?)
  • Reduced ambient reading (you don’t have an ‘adjacent page’ to attract your attention on the web, although very busy websites try to overcome this).

There is not a lot good PRs can do to change any of these, except to constantly explain to clients that the value of any particular media campaign lies not in the total click-throughs nor the total number of web centimetres given over to a press statement, but rather in the impact of the campaign.

Click-throughs particularly grate on classically trained journalists. For instance, before digitisation, journalists were taught that the standard news story aims to answer as many of the “five Ws” as possible in the introductory paragraph. They are: ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’. You then answer ‘how’. This is discouraged on the web because it gives away too much information such that the reader is less likely to click-through to the full story, thereby reducing the reader metrics to show potential advertisers. But that is not in the best interests of the reader – it’s just annoying the reader – and would hope, then, is unsustainable over time.

As a footnote: Some years ago, in about 2000-01, a friend of mine bought an Australian-based international cycling website for $100,000. This was a lot of money to him and a big business gamble. He did two things differently to all his competitor cycling websites: he printed all the results of every race around the world that he could instead of just the first 10 or so past the post as his competitors did; and he published all the stories on one web page – usually four short stories per page, twice a day.

The business was a struggle for him and he was urged to increase the advertising space available and the attractiveness of it by adopting the standard model of having a short one paragraph or just a headline displayed before the reader had to click-through to read the story. This would mean he had more “inventory” to publish more advertisements on second and supplementary pages and the evidence to show advertisers that people were reading all the stories. But he refused because, he said, his readers didn’t want that.
This was a time when the internet was slower and clicking through to get more details took longer. It’s analogous, though, with people reading newsletters on their smart phones today. Clicking through on a smart phone is similarly annoying for readers.
My friend wanted to give his readers everything he could and exactly how they wanted it. It became the most popular website in the world for competitive cyclists, although still making only a modest profit. He then sold the business in 2007 – that bit was lucky – for $5 million, invested the money wisely – a bit of luck there too – and now travels the world watching cycling races.

*Greg Bright is the editor of Investor Strategy News and has been a journalist and publisher for more than 30 years.

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