Media top talent wins help to build brands

Media outlets have been rocked by a flurry of high-profile hires and departures, which have created positive PR opportunities for some and challenges for others.

NEW YORK: Media outlets have been rocked by a flurry of high-profile hires and departures, which have created positive PR opportunities for some and challenges for others.

On the heels of its recent redesign, Forbes has recruited veteran finance reporter Jeff Bercovici from AOL. Under new editorial director and former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan, Women's Wear Daily has brought over the Observer's media columnist John Koblin. Recently-sold Newsweek has seen a mass exodus of its editorial stars, including economics editor Dan Gross to Yahoo! Finance and correspondent Howard Fineman to The Huffington Post.  Yahoo also hired USA Today's deputy managing editor Phil Pruitt as politics editor for Yahoo! News.

Broadcast journalism has seen its share of high profile moves as well with NBC Universal replacing CEO Jeff Zucker with COO Steve Burke and CNN US replacing president Jonathan Klein with Ken Jautz, head of CNN's sister channel, HLN.

Terry Neal, SVP, director of strategic media in the DC office for Hill & Knowlton and a former journalist, tells PRWeek that it is rare for staff on the editorial side “to be given the freedom to truly affect the editorial product in a way that is recognizable to most people.”

Still, he says “these kind of high-profile hires are often made to send a message to investors as much as they are to consumers about the direction of the brand.”

Nick Ragone, partner and associate director of the New York office for Ketchum, says new media companies have the most to gain in terms of PR from their high-profile hires.

“Companies like The Huffington Post and Yahoo have really been ramping up and going after big names [from traditional outlets] because they want some of that cache from old media,” Ragone tells PRWeek. “These star journalists have become brands unto themselves: they bring their own Twitter and Facebook followings and have established access to cable talk shows.”

By paying for top talent, Ragone says it also sends the message to their various stakeholders that they consider themselves top-flight news entities.  “We look at it like when Fox Business or Portfolio magazine came up,” he says. “The Huffington Post and Yahoo have huge eyeballs, great brands and now great talent going there as well.”

The loss of a star reporter or columnist typically doesn't hurt a media brand for long, says Michael Gordon, principal of New York-based Group Gordon Strategic Communications.  “Reader habits tend to change pretty slowly,” he says, which gives a company ample time to find and trumpet their own new hire or promotion. 

But in the case when a media organization has lost not one but several editorial stars—namely Newsweek, in the wake of it its sale by The Washington Post Co.–the challenge is much tougher.

“Once they found a buyer, you could tell based on the exodus that Newsweek's editorial stars felt like the company had treated them poorly. And by losing those stars, the brand will suffer because many people read the magazine for their favorite reporters and columnists,” says Gordon. “Newsweek needs to start focusing on attracting new branded talent and promoting their existing talent as the essence of the publication. By investing in certain stars, they can build brand loyalty for the long term.”

Still, that could prove tough to do since there may be no end in sight to the senior-level turnover, particularly as traditional media faces unprecedented challenges to its business model.

“We're in a free agency era for journalists right now and that is a direct result of the cost cutting; it is just more efficient for the new organization to hire editorial staff on a contract basis,” says Gordon. “That means there is more opportunity for movement, but there is also less loyalty on both sides. That will continue to create some communication challenges for news organizations.”

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