Redesigned 'WSJ' offers PR chance to help media evolve

For every corporate CEO who is excited by a positive product review on CNET, there are many others who want a woodcut in The Wall Street Journal or nothing - well, at least one accompanying a headline like, "Jane Smith makes investors rich, employees loyal, and customers buy lots of stuff."

For every corporate CEO who is excited by a positive product review on CNET, there are many others who want a woodcut in The Wall Street Journal or nothing - well, at least one accompanying a headline like, "Jane Smith makes investors rich, employees loyal, and customers buy lots of stuff."

That attitude is probably changing, but not all that quickly. Even in this supposedly sophisticated PR community, we still get complaining calls when stories appear "only" online. Clip books just look that much prettier when populated with print stories.

It is now imperative for communicators to help shape the C-suite's perspective on the media landscape, because media outlets will only become more demanding, not less. In my interview with Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he indicates how the changes that are taking place in the paper will demand more of companies, not less.

"If I'm a PR person, I'm going to think about the Journal as having multiple faces," he said. "For my announcement news, it's going to be covered at even greater length than I'm used to on the Web, frequently, because space is infinite on the Web.

"But in the paper," he continued, "I'll have to get used to seeing stories squeezed, unless there is added value," in the form of exclusives or trend stories, for example. Neither of these ideas is revolutionary, I can hear you saying, and you're right. They are the worthy tactics of superior media relations efforts. (Though from a PRWeek perspective, I can tell you that more lip service is paid to these strategies than one actually sees executed on a day-to-day basis.)

What will change for PR pros pitching a redesigned Journal, and every other traditional media outlet that is struggling to evolve, has less to do with the outlet itself, and more with the consumer of information at the end of the process. Even as one wants to understand better how to interest editors and reporters, it is more vital that communicators ask themselves what information consumers want, and how they want to get it.

The trick is that media outlets, as one crucial channel for that information, are still figuring it out themselves. That is why Steiger, when asked if the redesigned Journal will take the paper through the next five years, said that there is no opportunity to rest on one's laurels today. "We're now in the environment of continuous change," he says. "If we see an opportunity to gain from change, we'll go for it."

So far, much of the discussion about new-media opportunities has been about circumventing traditional media in favor of direct consumer interaction, through blogs, podcasts, and other avenues. But PR will miss a great opportunity to help traditional outlets reach readers and viewers in new ways if they fail to recognize that no one has truly worked out the best formula for remaining relevant. Visionary communicators will help media evolve, not just react to how it changes.

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