It goes without saying that public relations in 2016 is far more complicated than it ever used to be. It now involves orchestration, big ideas, communication skills and true strategic thinking. Moving at the speed of light is the new normal. But the new sweeping scope and restless pace don’t mean that all the old tools are useless. Far from it. They just need to be adapted to new audiences, new media, a new universe.
Granted, it seems like forever ago that the traditional media had a virtual monopoly. It owned newsgathering, it owned the stories and it owned news-hungry audiences, which was pretty much everybody. News brands and their journalists owned credibility and trust. That meant that the PR industry had little choice but to rely on traditional news media—hence the rise of media relations.
Now those media are just the tip of the PR iceberg. Who still waits patiently for the next edition of the newspaper or a scheduled TV newscast? Whatever the news might be, it’s online somewhere soon after it happens, and people find it when and how they like. And the idea of a trusted establishment media is long gone: Look at the fall of mainstream journalist Brian Williams and the fast rise of “truthiness,” citizen journalists, bloggers and influencers.
As public relations professionals, it’s still our job to get our clients’ messages in the news—or even better, as Havas PR’s mantra says, get our clients to be the news—but the very definitions of who is making the news and how it’s being made are undergoing tectonic shifts.
It’s hard to know how to perform media relations when you don’t know who the relevant media still are anymore. Exactly who is it we’re supposed to be relating to?
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of media relations are greatly exaggerated. It needs some tweaking, but it’s still a valuable part of a communications tool kit. After all, PR still accounts for 10 to 50 times as many conversions as advertising. Potential consumers are far more influenced by people they trust—and that includes not only their real-world friends but also journalists and bloggers whose voices and opinions they know and trust.
It’s a mistake to define media as narrowly as we used to. For news about certain topics, more people turn to Business Insider than TheWall Street Journal. And although millions of people subscribe to and follow both of those sources, they’re likely to be less engaged, and less likely to convert, than the small but passionate followings of hyperfocused niche media, such as mommy bloggers, fashion influencers (Man Repeller, for one) and air travel hack gurus (hello, the Points Guy). News content produced by hyperlocal organizations has the potential to go viral at any moment by amazing us, tugging at our heartstrings, shocking us, making us laugh or otherwise blowing our minds.
And then there’s the media in social media. That should be part of agile media relations, too. The VP of strategic communications and content at PR Newswire told Fast Company that she has seen better results with items shared by everyday people on LinkedIn than from celebrity retweets.
In other words, it’s time to grow your media contact list. But also edit it, analyze it and annotate it: Who is media and who is an influencer? Who helps spread the news and who drives actual buying decisions?
Once you step back and examine some of the stories dominating the news cycle, it’s clear that there are no easy answers to those questions. My trusted colleague, trendspotter and writer Meredith Barnett, points out some of the challenges. For one, celebrities aren’t just spokespeople anymore; they’re their own brands—think of Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James or Jessica Alba’s Honest Company (and of how quickly Alba’s brand became tarnished when it was revealed that Honest Company was less than honest about its natural-purity standards).
In a recent article for Forbes.com, PR pro Robert Wynne placed the industry at a three-pronged fork in the road and labeled it a three-tiered class system, with traditional media relations as the shrinking middle class squeezed between DIY social media PR (“Let’s hire a 19-year-old intern”) and deep-pocketed advocacy PR, in which no expense is spared on teams of researchers and publicists who flood the media, think tanks, blogs and comments sections with well-crafted talking points.
Maybe media relations is shrinking, but it still matters—deeply. Especially if we embrace the change of the PR landscape as a broadening of the media. (Throwing out the distinction between having a “digital practice” and a “print practice” is just a start—how about just a “storytelling practice”?)
The discipline is hardly a dinosaur. The trick to riding it: Stay agile. Be hungry for real-time information and continuous improvement and learning. Listen hard, engage constantly and dissect projects into small nuggets to make things achievable. Whatever you do, with media relations or anything else, just don’t get comfortable.