The news environment in which we storytellers operate is in a high state of ferment.
Media fragmentation that began with cable TV, and accelerated with the internet's rise, is now occurring at breakneck speed. According to Technorati.com, there are now close to 20 million blogs. Moreover, it's not just blogs, but a profusion of new and nontraditional sources of information.
So while ad linage is down in newspapers and magazines, with circulation numbers also on the wane, and while fewer and fewer people rely on daily papers and network TV news to get information, it would be a huge mistake to conclude that there is a generally diminished appetite for news. To the contrary: People are hungrier than ever for news and information.
Instead of a handful of news sources that their parents depended on, today's generation consumes news from millions of outlets. Companies trying to reach today's news consumer have had to follow them. The interesting fact is that total ad spending is not in decline at all; rather, the media buy has shifted from traditional media to places like Google and MySpace.com.
When you look at the landscape of influence, it has long been an article of faith in the PR profession that information one reads about a product or brand in the context of independent third-party editorial - a news story as opposed to a paid advertisement - exerts a much greater influence on purchase consideration and brand preference. We tune out most ads because we know that the sponsor has paid for absolute control of the message. What's Volkswagen supposed to say about its Jetta in a TV ad? Watch out for oil leaks or faulty brakes? Consumers, who are bombarded with thousands of paid messages a day, have tuned out advertising or at least learned to apply very skeptical filters to these incoming bombs.
PR, which works through independent media conduits, is inherently more credible than advertising. The telling and repetition of a good story - the essence of PR - is responsible for building brands today. Advertising merely defends a brand position once it's been established. Examples are everywhere: Amazon, eBay, Google, even Cisco - all great and powerful brands, none of these brand positions built through ads.
Consider, too, the forces that created the surge of interest in Howard Dean's presidential candidacy or the cultural attraction to the yellow "Livestrong" wrist bracelets. What these examples show is that there is a great deal more subtlety in the landscape of influence today than the difference between paid and unpaid media.
Within the vast world of information sources, the growing divide is between traditional corporate media outlets and nontraditional participatory media. The sophisticated news consumer is likely to process bits of information from both types. Dean started as a prairie fire with $100 campaign donors and buzz on the internet, then appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, certifying the rise of the Dean "brand."
Eyewitness accounts of messages left on cell phones became part of the core narrative of 9/11 just as blog entries testified immediately to the horrors of the London bombings this past July 7. The Dan Rather fiasco at CBS News over fabricated military records of President Bush became a huge story only after first surfacing in the blogosphere.
I believe traditional news media will always have a vital civic role: The pros often write better, produce higher-quality stories, and draw on vast experience and judgment of news value to present their product. The bloggers, podcasters, and others in the nontraditional sphere have the advantage of authenticity - real voices reflecting real things, unfiltered by corporate politics or media ownership. Traditional and nontraditional media will coexist in a dance at once symbiotic and parallel.
So how does all this impact PR? For professional communicators, the changing landscape of influence requires us to think differently about the art and science of storytelling - how people get and process the information they act upon.
It seems pretty clear that today's important stories bounce up and down in an echo chamber of cross-reference between traditional and nontraditional media. What happens in the grass- roots or the word-of-mouth blogosphere informs the major media - and vice versa. The most important stories are the ones that are, in fact, a product of the interplay between traditional and nontraditional media.
Harnessing and managing the storytelling between traditional and nontraditional media outlets is the real job of today's PR pro. This is an incredible opportunity for PR to have an even greater influence in the future than it has enjoyed in the past.
Paul Bergevin is president of Citigate Cunningham.