From the IABC Communicator: Is Media Relations Dead?

Posted on: April 28th, 2016 by Amy Laski

Amy’s original feature, Is Media Relations Dead?, appeared in the International Association of Business Communicators  “Communicator Magazine.”

IsMediaRelationsDeadOnly a few months in and already 2016 has been a dismal year for the media business in Canada. First, it was the closure of the Toronto Star’s main printing plant and significant job cuts throughout its newsroom. Then came the Postmedia announcement that it would be merging newsrooms from multiple papers into one in each of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The result will see one writer filing stories for both publications, but not before being adapted by the “rewrite desk.” Finally, two of the country’s oldest newspapers—The Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News—shutterd their doors.

As bad as this all seems, if our news consumption continues to evolve as it has been, this downward spiral will only worsen. The average time Canadians spend reading physical newspapers has fallen 25.6% between 2010 and 2014, with an annual shrinkage of 4.7% expected through 2017.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Online media consumption is on the rise. People spent an average of 429 minutes a day consuming media online in 2015, a 1.4% increase from 485 minutes in 2014.

This evolution from print-stained fingers to fingers numbed by screen-swiping isn’t scary to me. On the contrary. As a communicator, I’m duly fascinated and excited to explore all the opportunities that arise out of this seismic shift in our information consumption habits.

What role will media relations play?

By its very nature, to engage in media relations, you need media with whom to relate. As the number of pure-play rank and file journalists dwindle, and we see an upswell of bloggers, social influencers and citizen journalists, what are the implications on the practice of media relations?

I believe there are two significant ones worth noting:

1. The PR profession has a branding problem and it needs fixing, fast
Although public relations as a profession has always been—and will continue to be—much broader than media relations, there is a prevailing inclination to equate one with the other. As traditional media dwindle and the lines between marketing disciplines continue to converge, it is crucial to position PR as a revenue driver, not a cost centre. The practice of public relations, and business success in general, depends even more heavily today on leveraging insights to better understand your audiences, learning about and developing relationships with the individuals and channels in whom your audiences place their trust, and establishing connections between the two. PR professionals must be positioned as the experts in establishing this connection, not limited to media alone.

2. There is an incredible opportunity for brands to harness the power of their most important stakeholders and influencersjournalists includedin developing their best brand narrative.

While even a few years ago it would have been verboten to “buy” media coverage (unless of course it was clearly labeled “advertorial”) today, there are entire companies dedicated to enabling brand leaders to buy coverage from so-called social influencers. These influencers have earned loyal followings based on their unique points-of-view and the compelling ways in which they express them (blogging, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.). And while they may have “earned” the right to be paid for the content they create, they’ve shifted the model of media relations as a result. The promise of these influencers to reach hundreds and even hundreds of thousands of devout followers with a message, offers a comforting level of control and predictability for brands. But is the resulting content deemed credible by consumers? That is not certain. Pay-to-play transactional content may have a place in an integrated communications plan, but should not be the only pillar. Furthermore, both sides of the proverbial coin benefit from a policy of full disclosure when payment has been exchanged for content. But, while in the US it is mandated, in Canada it is not. For consumers, now more than ever, it’s caveat emptor, buyer beware.

As for traditional journalism on the other hand, it’s business (almost) as usual, and the line between church and state—editorial and advertising—is as strong as ever.

As communicators, marketers, media and influencers navigate this new ecosystem, it’s evident that there’s room for everyone not only to co-exist, but to collaborate. Brands may not be able to control in full the messages about their brands, but by engaging one-time “outsiders” such as media and influencers as part of their core processes, they will benefit from a deep-seated brand narrative from which to grow their businesses.
Media relations is very much alive and well, but has just evolved. The rules of engagement are the same, but the playbook is considerably thicker. Most significantly, journalists and other social influencers need to be engaged at the start of the story pipeline, and not just the end. When approached in this manner, everyone benefits.