PRs face a choice over local TV shake-up

The hyperlocal TV beast has been unleashed and the underprepared risk being eaten alive.

Richard Stokoe: "People say they want local news but always ignore it."
Richard Stokoe: "People say they want local news but always ignore it."

It all used to be so easy. PR was about digging out stories, pitching them to newspapers or broadcasters and getting good coverage. Then along came rolling news demanding to be fed 24/7. 

Just as we felt we understood the resource implications needed to nourish this hungry beast, the internet took off. Then digital radio. Then blogs. Then Facebook. Then Twitter. Then citizen journalism.

Each new medium over the past 15 years has challenged PR professionals to look at their priorities, what is effective and juggle servicing the needs of one outlet over another. 

So just when you thought you could sit back and admire the new media landscape, another beast is lurking in the undergrowth – one that will pounce on any unsuspecting PR who hasn’t pulled out their binoculars and spotted it in the bushes. 

This one will eat you alive if you aren’t prepared and will hunt you down hour after hour, day after day, relentlessly exhausting you as you try (and fail) to fight off its rapacious claws. I refer to the brave new world of hyperlocal television.

Three years ago, the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a vision where hyperlocal TV stations would be "offering a new voice for local communities, with local perspectives that are directly relevant to them". This year almost 50 channels will start operating from a Freeview box near you. Grimsby has already launched its service, 18 more are coming this spring and another 28 over the summer. 

But these won’t be the Mickey-Mouse outfits of yesteryear. For example, London Live TV, owned by the London Evening Standard, has recruited more than 50 editorial staff to pull the 18-hours-a-day programming together. It will employ nine reporters who, armed with iPhones for video cameras, are tasked with finding five-and-a-half hours of news every day.

This means 330 minutes of news will need to be found locally each week and will entail reporters seeking out any source with an axe to grind and giving them the oxygen of publicity.

Television has always been the most labour-intensive arena for PR professionals, but it has also been a significant behavioural and reputational change-shifter. Pitching, finding locations, prepping interviewees, arranging the filming locations and helping reporters get the best shots all takes a huge amount of time and resource. Hyperlocal will demand the same.

But the biggest question of all is: will anyone watch it? People say they want local news but always ignore it. The demise of the local paper is a testament to the fickle beast that is the pollster’s opinion of punters craving local content.

PR professionals will have to make a choice: pour effort into hyperlocal TV and sacrifice print and digital in the hope that people will watch it; or ignore it and concentrate on the status quo in the hope that, like Google+, the only people who will use the new medium will be employees of the company.

Get this one wrong and PR professionals will be staring into the dark abyss of overwork or under-delivery.

Richard Stokoe is senior comms adviser at Brent Council

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