Competition, the power of blogs, and the need for speed have made media relations more complex than ever.
By the time this story goes to print, Technorati, a web search engine, will have tracked its four millionth weblog (or blog). The cost of entry into the online publishing arena has dropped to zero. Meanwhile, network news organizations like Fox and NBC have found new traffic through their cable news stations, radio networks, and websites.
Some outlets - most recently CBS and historically Fox - also face public criticism about alleged political leanings and accuracy. In today's world, information overload makes it difficult to determine what's legitimate news and what's gossip, what's earnest and what's satire. Newspapers give column inches to "public editors" who write about - what else - the newspaper.
Established and heretofore esteemed network news programs are assailed by individual blogs. News breaks from all different angles, seconds after an event occurs. Phones have become portable cameras. The basic economic barrier to entry in the publishing world has plummeted to nothing, allowing anyone with a computer to become editor, publisher, and writer. Thus, it is no surprise that many people talk of the new media landscape as an unheralded time in the art of communications.
Media relations pros, however, demur and say the discipline is merely going through its next iteration. Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, points out that nearly each decade has ushered in a new era in media, one that the PR profession has had to adapt to.
"The 1920s had an unprecedented explosion of media between billboards, newspaper expansion, and radio," says Moskowitz. In the 1940s and '50s, television came into its own, pushed further by the mainstream adoption of cable and, more recently, satellite television. Now, users are faced with a multitude of choices, from the previously mentioned mediums to the internet and blogs.
"This is just one more period of compressed growth," he says. "Media goes through booms and busts, and we've just come out of another boom."
Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon Communications, views the span of the media as a continuum. Even though technology is delivering unheralded media opportunities, Trufelman is quick to point out that not all media trends have been growth. "There were 11 or 12 daily newspapers in New York 40 or 50 years ago," Trufelman says. "Now there are only four."
But now those newspapers have to contend with the local news stations, public access television, news websites, and niche blogs that focus on the city. The role of media relations is even more important in the new media paradigm, where the explosion of outlets has made reporters' jobs more difficult, says Eric Cravey, president of Cravey Communications, because they still hear the cry of "produce, produce, and produce." These demands on churning out stories leave reporters with minimal time to do the investigative reporting that produces the scoops.
"Our role as PR practitioner becomes strengthened to a degree if we provide reporters with solid, usable stories and build relationships," Cravey says.
Another issue in the new media environment is the need for speed, a natural result of technological developments of publishing tools and the expansion of the media. Organizations are under pressure to break news ahead of the competition, and that affects PR pros just as much as it does reporters.
"[Journalism] is a profession - from an access perspective - that expects [PR pros] to be available 24 hours a day," says Glen Turpin, director of communications at software company Quark. "It eats up into personal time, but we've chosen this profession."
Eric Rabe, VP of media relations at Verizon, concurs. "There is no way to clock out anymore because the media is operating 24 hours a day," he says.
The need for speed
While PR pros who interact with the media are able to do so at a much more rapid pace and with greater frequency, the question remains whether this makes them more effective. Ray Kerins, GCI Group's EVP and managing director of media relations for the Americas, believes that for the most part, it has.
"It has made us all better professionals and made our lives 90% better and 10% worse," Kerins says. "When it really hits the fan, you have to be there for your clients." He adds that there is always a balance, and PR practitioners have to find the compromise between being committed to the profession and being consumed by it.
Media relations pros interviewed for this article almost universally lionized the technology that has kept them perpetually tethered - at least virtually - to their desks. Kerins cites as an example of true mobility the time he received news on a train via his Blackberry that a client had gotten a favorable court ruling. All of his contacts were stored in his device, so by the time his train reached its destination, he had sent out that information to at least 12 reporters and given interviews to six. "I wouldn't know what to do without the technology we have today," Kerins says.
For all the Blackberries and mobile phones that make the media relations professional perpetually a dial or send button away, the internet has also loosened some of the man hours.
"The web is an excellent device for putting up background information and storing news alerts," says James Grunig, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. "When a crisis occurs, [Journalists] look at the website for information about the crisis."
E-mail has allowed Quark to give up mailing printed press releases, something it hasn't done in more than five years - unless one counts a supplement for a live event.
PR pros can post videos, images, pdf files, and other large bulks of information over the web. They provide off-site demonstrations of products for any reporter with a laptop and an internet connection. The digital reality has reduced the cost. Instead of sending hundreds of FedEx's, Peter Himler, chief media officer at Edelman, says outlets are beginning to accept video digitally, while photo desks can accept massive photo files.
Himler remembers when capacity was an issue of office space for Journalists, not computer space. "You used to send glossy photos and three-inch tapes, and journalists used to complain that offices were filled with junk."
Indeed, technology can be a blessing and a curse, and competition for media attention has increased along with the capabilities. While PR pros have the ability to get in touch (and stay in touch) with Journalists around the clock, their competitors have the same opportunity, creating overstuffed in-boxes. Michael Schiferl, Weber Shandwick SVP and director of media relations, says, "E-mail has changed the speed of communications, but you don't want to spam reporters and producers with every release under the sun."
Oprah's producer gets so inundated with e-mails, Schiferl says, it is almost more beneficial to send a traditional pitch. Reporters can have preferences now because of the different conduits in which PR pros can get information to them, and it is important to find out what they are. "You have to learn the habits of reporters," Schiferl says.
While Turpin concedes that a majority of pitches start out via e-mail, he still enjoys phone time. "I like to know who I'm working with, which is challenging through e-mail," Turpin explains.
Himler agrees with Turpin that e-mail dictates that most of the interaction between PR pros and the media is done electronically. "The advent of e-mail was extraordinary in helping to reach out to many Journalists," Himler says, adding that phones are still important if you have a breaking story.
Bill Hughes, VP of communications and public affairs at IMS Health, says his long-term relationships with the Journalists he works with usually lead him to pitch through a phone call. "If I were five or ten years into the business, I would start with an e-mail. But most of the guys I do business with I've known what they do [for a long time] and, hopefully, they know me. I usually pick up the phone and hit really quickly on the point," Hughes says.
He cautions that e-mail, and technology in general, can hamper the ability of media relations pros to get their message across.
The journalists he knows well complain about the tendency on the part of some PR professionals to focus on what a product does literally, rather than what it does for consumers. "Kevin Maney [a columnist for USA Today] said [to me] that his biggest problem is he talks to people who are bogged down in techno speak," Hughes says. "People [sometimes] hide behind the 'speeds and feeds' instead of talking about the benefits."
The journalists he knows well tell him that they can gauge their future interactions with a PR professional based on the press release. "If they're writing long, laborious press releases, they're probably doing the same thing on their [phone] pitch," Hughes says. "You have to keep it concise and clear, like an elevator pitch. If they're interested, they'll call you back and get all the details they want."
Bad news can't be hidden
In commenting on The Wall Street Journal's decision to introduce a weekend edition, one PR professional told PRWeek that the development meant that bad corporate news could no longer be dumped successfully on Friday. But most media relations experts feel the concept of dumping news at opportune times is, for the most part, futile.
Nevertheless, PR pros may have to convince clients who still operate within the old framework that the current environment makes it much more difficult to contain negative news.
"I remember that during the Bay of Pigs, the administration contacted the news organizations and asked them to sit on the story in the interest of national security," Trufelman says. "That would never happen now."
If a client seeks to mitigate the damage and says, "We'll just give it to X, Y, Z outlet," Trufelman says, you have to convey to them that it has mass deployment as soon as it hits the internet. "You might as well assume that bad news will get out well and fast," Trufelman says. "The best response is a truthful one. If a hurricane is coming, you might as well assume you're going to get wet."
Trufelman points out this is an antiquated notion based on times - before LexisNexis, news retrieval, caches, or archiving - where you could bury something in the late edition. "The more you stonewall, the more it will make you look bad because you had multiple opportunities to tell the truth," he says.
The advent of blogs, particularly in such a polarized political climate, has been a critical component in this new environment, and bloggers have won most of their scoops in the political arena. The concept of muckraking is far older than any journalist, media professional, or blogger out there, but the tools making it easier have emerged in the past two years. Media relations pros must realize, for better or worse, that they will bump into a blogger at one moment or another during their jobs.
Verizon's Rabe recalls a man who wrote a blog about his mother's telephone bill. His point of view was taken with "surprising amount of credibility," and it ended up getting quoted in the press, Rabe says. "This is a problem I might have been able to ignore in an earlier age," Rabe says.
But the same tools afforded to the disgruntled customer are also available to PR pros. "I can send an e-mail to a bunch of reporters who cover our industry," Rabe says. "I'm enough of a believer in free speech and open communication that if all the voices are heard, the truth will win out."
Some journalists are bloggers, and even a good number of bloggers without formal media training are doggedly faithful to the pursuit of fact-checking and ensuring journalistic principles. It's not surprising that some of the major bloggers rising to prominence in this election season are lawyers. For instance, while many political blogs are partisan and won't necessarily point out their own party's slips, they are very quick to update posts that have been disproved. Despite this, there aren't any universally adapted tenets to the trade, which leads PR pros to be wary, while aware of the potential power in dealing with blogs.
"Reporters are supposed to verify, check, and research, but there are still a lot of questions as to whether the bloggers are utilizing the same 'journalism 101' techniques," Cravey says.
Himler says you shouldn't start talking on the record to any media person, especially someone you don't know. "If you represent or work in a particular industry, you should know the traditional media that cover the industry," Himler says. "You should have already become familiar with the blogs, websites, magazines, and reporters that cover your company."
If the name isn't familiar, Himler suggests the PR professional ask for information such as their web address or e-mail address and check them out. "In the last couple of years, with Google and LexisNexis, it's fairly easy to do some due diligence if the person is on the up-and-up," Himler says.
Cravey adds that bloggers are having a huge impact on how the media operates, and there is the potential for news beats being redefined and using their own blogs. NJ.com - the portal for a number of New Jersey newspapers, such as the Star-Ledger and the Trenton Times - hosts a number of weblogs, one of which had immediate commentary on Gov. James McGreevey's resignation. Other featured blogs were ones for an Olympian swimmer, a small-town New Jersey mayor, and a transit blog.
"Bloggers have a place at the table, and it's incumbent upon the media to look at whether or not this is valuable information," Cravey said.
"If there's a single silver bullet that will seriously wound big media, it's myopia," says Greg Brooks, principal at West Third Group. "Being the big kid on the block doesn't make you omniscient."
A multitude of options
Turpin wonders what constitutes a media outlet anymore, which makes it difficult to prioritize who you pitch. The difficult nature of the situation is that as readership constantly changes for media sites, a particular site can increase its readership very quickly.
"One of the biggest changes is trying to figure out the importance of web-based media outlet," Turpin says. "How you balance your time and spend your energy?"
With so many media outlets, there is certainly unprecedented opportunity for PR pros to get their clients constant media coverage. But it's also important to play devil's advocate.
"Any time my clients say, 'I need media,' I ask, 'Why?'" Brooks says, adding that he always ponders whether the money and time might not be better spent communicating to people directly. "We have the same tools in our hands that [cause] the public to step away from [traditional outlets]," Brooks says.
Which prompts the question of just how important the prime placement of the past is today. "It used to be that a prominent placement in The New York Times could change the course of history," Himler says. "But now there's a proliferation of sources where people get their news."
He adds: "Big media's impact on creating [action] has been diluted."
Despite this, a lot of PR pros have to realize that their clients still value the prestige of that placement. Kerins says his clients still list the same top-ten media outlets when they talk about media placement, such as wire services, CNN, CNBC, Fox, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
But blogs now offer clients a prime opportunity to indirectly end up in all those mainstream outlets. "If you have a tech client featured on [popular tech blog] Slashdot, you don't have to send out a press release; reporters will come to you," Brooks says. "The front door may be locked, but maybe you can get in the back door."
While reporters still cultivate a group of sources that they interact with on a regular basis, Journalists and bloggers are in a race against each other to find prime scoops from blogs that might have appeared overnight and may not be up in a week. For instance, one of the first correct assertions that John Kerry had picked John Edwards as his running mate came via Bryan Smith, an airplane mechanic who noticed Edwards' name being placed on the campaign airplane. He posted the information on USAviation.com and was one of - if not the first - to report this news. Neither USAviation.com nor Bryan Smith has been instrumental in breaking any subsequent news.
"It's as simple as human nature that journalists want to get it themselves rather than through a press release," Brooks says. "Weblogs can break the news, traditional media can put it into context, and then, whatever they report will be bloviated over by the bloggers."
Despite the increased power of blogs, Kerins admits, "The cover of the marketplace section in The Wall Street Journal is still a home run."
Turpin agrees. "There will always be the [PC World] pitch. They're trusted for their acumen and accuracy, which are sometimes questionable elsewhere," Turpin says.
Dealing with the networks
It's not surprising that the network news was not on Kerins' list. Many of the seasoned PR pros say the big four have never been a real target for PR pitches anyway.
"When I first started out, you could not get your story in the network news [unless it was] a far-reaching story," Hughes says. "Back in the '80s, it wasn't a part of our communications planning, but business shows on CNBC and Fox News [are] looking for content all of the time. It's opened a whole new venue for me to get the word out."
"Most of the time, you won't find the major news networks on the [aforementioned] top-ten list," Kerins says.
Blogs have done much to question the credibility of network news, with the networks doing themselves a disservice by abdicating responsibility for most of the political convention coverage. "I believe that people will always gravitate toward authenticity," Brooks says. "[Network news] has pursued the chimera of objectivity and lost authenticity."
In such a competitive landscape, network news stories have erred toward exposé stories. The chances are that if a client reaches the network news, it won't be a positive story.
"The competition for attention does mean that the things that seem more interesting or titillating rise to the top," Rabe says. "Positive news about business is typically not in the category."
Despite the fluctuations and disruptions in the media landscape and the emergence of communications tools that allow corporations and the public easily interact in a narrative fashion, media relations pros are still bullish on their jobs and importance.
"There is no more powerful medium out there than what we do on a daily basis," Kerins says.
Q&A with Larry Moskowitz
PRWeek spoke with Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, to get his opinions on current trends in media relations:
PRWeek: Have the rules for media relations changed?
Larry Moskowitz: There's a book written in 1921 by John C. Long about public relations, and very little in that book has been proven wrong or has been changed. While lots of the elements of the landscape have changed, and it's a much different world in the media than it was five years ago, the basics have not changed since a guy was trying to get Moses a couple inches in the Bible.
PRWeek: Has there been a period like this where there's been such an explosion of media outlets?
Moskowitz: Absolutely. The 1920s saw an unprecedented explosion, between billboards, newspaper expansion, and radio. The '40s and '50s saw the advent of TV, followed by the enormous spurt of radio again in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Then there was the internet. This is just one more period of compressed growth. The media goes through booms and busts, and we've just come out of another bust.
PRWeek: Do you think PR pros, in representing their clients, have an opportunity to bypass traditional media channels to reach their customers? Does this threaten the hold the media has on information?
Moskowitz: The quick and superficial answer is yes. There are far more levers in the PR professional's hands than ever before, in terms of more media and with less scrutiny. They can consider bypassing traditional news media completely. But, on the other hand, the audience for the local newscast across the country still yields numbers, breadth, and credibility that no other medium provides. The traditional [conduits] still hold, but the new ones give the PR industry more leverage than it ever has had before.
PRWeek: Is the great experiment of press releases by e-mail working or must we consider a new distribution system?
Moskowitz: The introduction of the internet and the advent of e-mail are only new iterations of similar kinds of innovations to the past, like when we went to fax to blast fax or we went from telex to private wire transmission. The media has always had limited input pipes, which explains their reliance on the AP and its various subsidiary circuits. The power of newswires remains intact. And, at the end of the day, phone conversations are probably as important or more important than ever before. There always has to be a multitudinous platform. There is no one magic bullet. They're all critically important in the communications flow.
PRWeek: Do you think the ability to break news has been commoditized and there will be more of a push toward analysis?
Moskowitz: When I was a wire service reporter, television reached a new threshold in its importance. That's when the newspapers shifted from afternoon to morning publishing. They went from two editions to one. They conceded the ability to break news to another medium that was far more adept at it. With the advent of the internet and 24-hour cable TV, the slower media have adapted their ability to have perspective. Magazines theoretically have the longest lead time and the best ability to consider. The weeklies have some time to think and put their arms around a story. Ultimately, things that wind up on the internet or radio or 24-hour television news are the most reactive, but not necessarily the most accurate and definitely not the ones with the greatest perspective.