What responsibility does PR have to the dying media?

More than boring product pitches and self-promotional op-eds.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Kai Mörk, CC BY 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6438250)
(Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Kai Mörk, CC BY 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6438250)

No matter how you slice it, the media is in trouble.

Fake news. Guest "experts" who don’t tell the truth. Clickbait headlines. A president who calls the media the "enemy of the American people." No wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, news organizations are laying people off, even after decades of cuts. Ad revenues continue to drop, and few publications are able to make up the difference through subscription revenues.

Reporters are required to cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more page views than ever before. Meanwhile, everyone hates you.

It’s a stressful job, as I can tell you: I worked in daily online news from 2007 to 2015, and each year the demands on me and my team ratcheted up while the overall media business looked worse and worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 54,400 working journalists in the U.S., and the total is declining. If you look at just full-time daily journalists, the count is down to just 33,000, about half of what it was in 2000.

Meanwhile, BLS counts 306,500 public relations specialists and PR managers. That means the people who are paid to get corporate messages across outnumber daily news journalists by nearly 10 to one.

That’s not even a fair fight.

This imbalance explains why reporters’ inboxes are overflowing with email pitches, and it also explains why it’s so hard to get a reporter to reply to a pitch, even to say, "No thanks."

Understanding that, how should companies and the PR pros who represent them respond? As I see it, there are two main options.

Option one: Be like Donald
Ignore the press. Forge your own, direct connections with your target audiences. Create a strong social media presence on Facebook—which will cost you, because Facebook doesn’t promote brands without getting paid—and on Twitter, where anything goes and you can easily reach a targeted, polarized audience at low cost. Your independence from the dying media is directly proportional to the size of the audience you have built. Accordingly, focus on building that audience.

Own your own media. Build a rich website full of interesting things to watch and read, because you don’t want to be totally dependent on Facebook, and you need a way to deliver your message to all comers. Or create a YouTube channel or a Snapchat channel.

You will need an authentic voice, and you’ll need to have something interesting to say on a regular basis: weekly or daily. If you have an outrageous personality, so much the better. People on social media love to be entertained.

If your brand is not outrageous, all hope is not lost. You can still carve out a niche by being dependable, interesting, informative, or useful. Decide what your advantage is and deliver that constantly.

Focus on the metrics. Unless the polls go against you—then forget the metrics and say something that will get people talking.

This isn’t rocket science: It’s storytelling and showmanship. Talk loudly and carry a big schtick.

Option two: Be more useful
Double down on the idea that PR and the press have a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Too often communications pros give lip service to this idea but don’t actually deliver. Instead, take the role as a facilitator seriously and figure out how you can help the journalists you talk to, not just your clients.

Prioritize quality engagements and understand how your client fits into bigger-picture stories, rather than just touting the latest big fundraise or the newest product features.

Become a bridge to the business community and be more useful to individual journalists by bringing them context and information they actually want.

Promote stories that journalists write. You have the ability to amplify stories. Use it. More page views and more retweets are always welcome.

Develop more thoughtful op-eds and bylines, because most publications are starved for informed perspectives that aren’t horribly written and self-promotional. Your goal should be to get your executives recognized as smart, interesting people worth paying attention to, not to promote their brands. This isn’t direct response marketing, its indirect response PR.

Support institutions that defend freedom of the press, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Subscribe to a newspaper. Or three. Seriously, spend money to support quality journalism.

And if you’re wealthy enough, buy the whole paper. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money from it—owning a publication is more like philanthropy than it is like capitalism.

Remember, if the press goes away, PR people don’t have a job. It’s time for public relations to step up and take responsibility for helping support the Fourth Estate.

Dylan Tweney is the former editor-in-chief of VentureBeat, a former editor at Wired, and the founder and president of Tweney Media

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