A couple of months ago, PRWeek published a column by Ian Bruce of Forrester Research titled, Why Traditional PR is Dying. He stated, “Conventional PR — or at least media relations — may become a thing of the past, a relic.” He pointed to the decline in the number of local news outlets, and a growing lack of trust in the news media to support his point.
Not surprisingly, the PRWeek column was quickly challenged in a LinkedIn post titled, PR is not dead. It is more important than ever, from Mark McClennan, the former chair of the Public Relations Society of America. He countered that media relations is just one aspect of PR and that “… public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across numerous platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.”
As a longtime broadcast news manager who now works in public relations, I couldn’t help but scrunch my nose as I read these columns. Here’s my two cents on this topic.
My assessment is that Mr. Bruce and Mr. McClennan each made valid points and brought present day insight to this ongoing debate. But let’s face it, this debate isn’t new. It’s more like the annual squabble over which movie should win Best Picture at the Oscars. Over the past 15 years, I have read or heard a lot of bold statements about the demise of local news outlets and the PR industry in general, many of which have turned out to be wrong. The main reason is that smart PR and journalism practitioners find a way to blend successful past practices with emerging new opportunities. History provides the proof.
The first colonial newspaper Publick Occurrences (yes, it was spelled Publick back then) was published in 1690, more than 330 years ago. Not long after, some of our Founding Fathers began placing stories in colonial newspapers with the goal of influencing public opinion about what they felt was unfair treatment by King George. Later, The Federalist Papers, celebrated in the Broadway play Hamilton, were drafted by framers and then published in New York state newspapers with the intent of building public support for how our new Republic should be governed. One could argue that approach was the single most impactful PR strategy in our nation’s history.
Three centuries later, corporate, industry, labor and nonprofit leaders still seek placement of their message in long-established and trusted media outlets. Why? Because while they understand the value of digital platform distribution, established media outlets still have brand acceptance, influence and credibility that many people trust.
It’s true that the number of practicing journalists and local news outlets have declined in recent years. Some might call it right-sizing for an industry dependent on the placement of advertising dollars. Those that remain or have recently started operating are innovating in ways that pay the bills and keep their editorial work relevant to key audiences. Daily publications are making themselves top-of-mind by sending push alerts non-stop; weekly publications are now posting daily digital briefs; some publications have been selling sponsored content sections for years, and nonprofit content providers (which are becoming more common) are finding new public and philanthropic financial support. All of these steps improve operating capital.
In broadcasting, a recent trend is greater reliance on Streaming Video On-Demand (SVOD) and the expansion of OTT (Over the Top) media services. It’s programming delivered only via the internet. Adam Symson, president and CEO of media giant E.W. Scripps, talked about those platforms and the confluence of media channels recently in a March interview in Variety. “We don’t think the world is going to be either pay TV or OTT or over the air,” he said. “We really think the world is going to be a combination of all three.” Symson has great experience in digital and broadcast content development and has an elite understanding of how the old and new platforms can actually complement one another.
Likewise, PR is redefining its game by focusing on integrated media strategies that combine digital and traditional tactics, including the placement of sponsored (paid) media content. Staff-depleted media outlets are more willing today to accept story ideas and even content largely produced by PR practitioners. When that content gets published or broadcast it is then often shared to an even broader audience via social media under the masthead of a trusted, established media outlet. A confluence of old and new — integrated in a way that provides value to all parties.
As much as I hated it, the recent messaging stunt by Volkswagen is an example of how companies are leveraging traditional and digital media, along with PR tactics, to achieve a goal. VW’s quasi-April Fool’s Day joke (it was sent out on March 29) about its name changing to “Voltswagen” was pushed out by the company to trusted news media outlets and then those stories were distributed globally via digital platforms. This effectively integrated traditional and new media resources to carry out a devilish plan to promote its fleet of electric vehicles.
The point is that PR and journalism industries are both organic. It’s not a pivot as Mr. Bruce might call it, but rather an evolution continuum. The people who make the business decisions in journalism and PR are constantly adjusting to the habits and instincts of the consumers in the marketplace, just like any other business that plans to stand the test of time. They follow the money, using established practices that are enhanced by new technologies. I’m hard-pressed to see that ending anytime soon.
Tim Dye is the founder of Dye Communications. Prior to becoming a communications consultant in 2013, he spent nearly 30 years in broadcast journalism, and served in management positions at television news operations in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint/Saginaw.