21 Jan Why Public Relations (As We Know It) Is Dead
How we engage with news, share information and form opinions is changing faster than the public — and many professionals in the communications space — can grasp.
A short video on YouTube or TikTok now regularly garners more viewers than a prime-time slot on CNN. A website put up overnight masquerading as “news” may make a bigger splash than an in-depth investigative report in the Washington Post. And a well-executed tweet can build more buzz than an appearance on Good Morning America.
These radical changes in the communications landscape are driven by several interrelated trends.
The practice of journalism is shifting seismically.
Declining ad revenues have shrunk newsrooms beyond recognition, with outlets taking in just 30% of what they generated at the turn of the century. Today, weekday print circulation in America is just over half of what it was in 1994. In that same period of time, newsroom employment fell by nearly 40%.
Other players have moved in to try to fill the gap left by dead or dying outlets, from online-only players like Buzzfeed and Daily Beast to niche publications in hyper-focused fields — from the eSports Observer and The Dodo, to nonprofit and philanthropy-driven models like ProPublica and the American Journalism Project.
None of these attempts have succeeded at plugging the holes in this sinking ship. The industry continues hemorrhaging quality journalists as shrinking newsrooms drive down editorial standards. Beats once covered by multiple journalists now have far fewer, if any, reporters dedicated to covering them.
Who fills the gap left behind by shrinking outlets? Everyone.
Today, everyone is a publisher.
Digital platforms empower anyone with an idea to share it with the world, and research shows that the public will listen. Numerous studies have demonstrated that news consumers, particularly among younger audiences, often digest all items on their Facebook feed without differentiating between outlets — or distinguishing between fact and fiction.
As news outlets retrench, advertisers have more power than ever before.
The tools and technology available are remarkably sophisticated, allowing advertisers to reach highly targeted audiences with incredible accuracy. To complicate matters, news outlets desperate for cash now blur the lines between the editorial and advertising sides of their business. Some sell “native” or “contributed” content packages created by in-house reporters and editors (or outside PR firms) that look nearly indistinguishable from regular news coverage. Others outright sell articles or bend their editorial decisions to the wishes of major financial backers.
Where does that leave the practitioners of traditional public relations?
Historically, a PR professional’s greatest asset was their Rolodex. They built relationships with journalists over time, sharing useful and timely information in the hopes that it would translate into coverage for clients.
Changes in the media landscape have rendered that model all but obsolete.
Relationships still matter, but public relations professionals must accept that there are now myriad and often more effective ways to reach audiences outside of calling a journalist. It is no longer enough to simply place an article. That placement must be supplemented with a strategy to elevate it above the noise in our crowded social media ecosystem.
Who will succeed in this new environment?
Those who deploy integrated strategies. It is no longer enough to offer earned, owned and paid media services in a vacuum without intimate knowledge about how your press item might drive a social or ad campaign, and vice versa.
Those who know how to tell a story. The decreasing power of gatekeepers has dramatically increased the importance and power of creative and dynamic storytelling. Great PR people don’t simply rely on good relationships with journalists; they make their story relevant in a highly competitive news landscape — and make that story fly off the page and into social feeds and the consciousness of a target audience.
Those who are nimble and proactive. In an era when anyone can rewrite your story in an instant — whether that’s a Twitter mob, a Wikipedia editor, an overworked reporter or an angry blogger — the communications professionals who understand how to proactively define a narrative and respond immediately across platforms will be worth their weight in gold.
Those who understand how to truly measure value and impact. For decades, PR firms have trotted out books of press clippings to illustrate worth for clients. Media monitoring companies even created a (highly dubious) measure of “publicity value” — how much a placement would have cost if the article was an equivalent sized ad – to help agencies make their case. The savviest clients now look beyond the mastheads in a clip book. They use a range of digital listening, analytics tools and common sense to set benchmarks and measure success.
For some time, there will be plenty of legacy PR firms doing legacy work for legacy clients who have not wizened up to the new realities of the communications landscape. But eventually, this will change. Those who adapt will find an incredible range of opportunities for nimble, strategic and creative communications professionals.
The rest of the industry, I believe, will go the way of the typewriter.
Originally posted Jan 21, 2020 on Forbes.com