Technology has created seismic shifts in the media landscape, and a media relations pro's field of expertise has had to grow in kind. But relationships are still key.
The media industry rarely undergoes an actual revolution. Instead, it is in a constant state of evolution - sometimes minute, glacial changes that only reveal themselves over the course of decades, and sometimes more fierce, rapid change that brings new innovations with every flip of a page on the calendar.
Media relations is somewhat of a shadow of the media itself. The art practiced by the PR world has not changed its fundamental tenets of relationship-building and communication in recent years as the media world has fully embraced new technologies; but the methods used by both companies and agencies are changing enough to make everyone question what, exactly, the media world really is.
For in-house corporate communicators, the recent past has been a time to adapt to new technologies without a playbook to consult.
"The biggest change is that people like me, and the folks that work with me, need to be a lot more inventive today," says Eric Rabe, SVP of media relations for Verizon. "Even three years ago, there were a lot of tried-and-true things that had been done before, [that] everybody knew worked pretty well, and we all knew how to do them. In today's environment... every day you have to get up and reinvent how you reach people."
That reinvention can come in many forms. Large corporations have now almost totally accepted the fact that social media - particularly blogs - is important and here to stay. Companies must now decide how best to grapple with the large, expanding, and sometimes menacing blogosphere, which requires quite a leap of faith for those used to controlling every aspect of their communications.
Rabe notes that there is "no evidence" that corporate blogs provide any quantifiable benefits, but adds that Verizon is planning on launching one focused on public policy issues anyway.
"We know there's a lot of conversation out there, [but] I don't think we really know the true impact of that conversation," he says. "I also think we're still discovering how to be a part of that conversation in an effective way. Trying stuff that may not work, being OK with it not working, and trying something else - I think that all has to be tolerated, if not reveled in."
That "stuff" entails forays into micro-media - and the risky nature of these can prove challenging to a corporate giant like Verizon. Rabe says his company monitors blogs and posts on them, and has even held a conference call for bloggers in an attempt to apply the traditional media relations model to the blogosphere. The inexperience of many bloggers in the conventions of journalism, along with the inherently formal nature of big companies, lead to occasional miscommunications, but Rabe stresses that Verizon's strategy boils down to this: "We try to just be real."
This new media doesn't create itself, though. Asked if the new media relations world requires a larger staff, Rabe offers a resounding "Yes!" As yet, however, his staff numbers have not changed.
Embracing a new world
Some companies simultaneously accepted two sobering facts: first, that blogs are important, but ultimately uncontrollable; and second, that the new-media expertise necessary to participate in the online discussion was past their own internal capabilities.
The prime example is Wal-Mart, which began an all-out media relations push more than a year ago that was unparalleled in its history. As press interest continued to rise with Wal-Mart's size, and opposition groups launched organized campaigns to change its policies, the retailer concluded that its traditional quiet approach simply didn't work in the modern era.
"As our company grew, and as expectations of others grew, we realized that we needed to tell our story or others would tell it for us," says Wal-Mart's VP of corporate communications Mona Williams. "Consumers, thought leaders, NGOs, and environmentalists now hold companies to a higher standard than years ago."
Williams says a seminal moment was a harsh New York Times editorial two years ago urging Wal-Mart to change its policies, rather than simply pursue a glossy PR campaign. She says that the company decided to embrace its PR team as "business counselors," which paved the way for closer relationships with media outlets. It also helped give executives the confidence to approve what are, by conventional standards, massive budgets for communications.
Wal-Mart developed an "early warning system" of outside opinion leaders to let company officials know what popular opinion really was. Blogs are an easy route to a variety of opinions, and Wal-Mart has become one of the most proactive American companies in blog relations in its work with Edelman.
"We've found that the distinctions between traditional and new media, such as bloggers, continue to blur," Williams says. "It's really a pulse for us of different segments of the [US] public. We've worked hard to identify different blogging segments," including conservatives, environmentalists, and labor and consumer advocates.
Williams notes that bloggers tend to be fiercely independent, but are not subject to the flood of press releases to which daily journalists have become inured. "Our experience has been that they'll review what we proactively send out, and then speak their mind," she says.
But mega-corporations are not the only ones riding the new-media wave. National and regional companies are also dealing with a proliferation of new outlets and a baffling new array of stakeholders, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Mark Scott, VP of marketing for Atlanta-based HomeBanc Mortgage Corp., says new technologies both make his job easier - e-mailing 100 press kits is a lot faster than assembling them by hand - and place new demands on his time - that blogger who wants to talk to the CEO, who is he, anyway?
Indeed, Scott takes parsing requests from bloggers on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes he might make an executive available, other times he might totally "shut out" someone who appears to be a crank. But he does try to accommodate as many requests as possible because, as he notes, "Every- thing has the potential to impact your image. The reporters at the Atlanta [Journal-Constitution] and the Miami Herald who cover our space are probably also finding this guy who's writing a blog."
Steve Rubel, the prominent blogger who joined Edelman as an SVP in its me2Revolution Group, has a wide perspective on the evolution of media. "You have a lot of people who are just as influential as the media, but have no journalism background whatsoever," he says. "The world is no longer dominated by people who know what journalism is and how it works."
Agencies have by and large come to accept his new state of affairs, which he dubs "horizontal communications." The "long tail" theory that posits the coming dominance of niche media seems to be one that firms are preparing for by ramping up new-media practices, hiring experienced people from the online space, and pursuing thought-leadership programs to shape the discussion, which will no doubt continue for years to come.
"I don't think it means that traditional PR is going away," Rubel says. "I just think that there's a whole new set of skills and learning that needs to be applied here."
APCO Worldwide's online communications group handles media relations for the Web half of media outlets that have separate online and print newsrooms, like The Washington Post, an acknowledgement that online news can now stand on its own. However, Evan Kraus, the SVP who leads APCO's online communications practice, says that the Internet news operations of some outlets are offering previously unknown enticements linking paid content to the news hole.
"A lot of these properties online have blurred the line between editorial and advertorial," he says. "At a lot of responsible publications, there's clarity as to what's paid for and what's not... [but] at a lot more online properties, ads or paid material can be a lot more substantive and look a lot like news articles."
Done responsibly, though, such "blurring" can lend added credibility to media placements. Kraus cites the Web site of the National Journal, which links paid white papers and position statements on issues to related articles, thereby offering a quick connection between interested readers and groups trying to influence them.
"As the media companies are becoming more budget-crunched... they're inviting others to participate to improve the quality of their site," says Kraus. "And as long as things are labeled clearly, I think it's a very honest presentation."
In fact, the increasingly tight margins of newspapers and other titles have impacted staff levels, giving PR pros a set of overworked, underpaid reporters that are, as a whole, easier to target than ever.
Stephen Brown, a VP of media relations in Atlanta for Manning Selvage & Lee, says that stressed reporters are now asking for more resources from a PR firm, above and beyond a simple pitch.
"We have to take the media relations process a lot further than it used to go, whereby we're providing not only the story, but if there's real people to provide, [we will]," he says. "Not only is this news that we're furnishing, but here's how it fits into a trend, here's some real people doing it, their numbers and their cell-phone numbers."
Along with that, Brown says, has come a loosening of restrictions on reporters' ability to get free gadgets, to the point that he terms it a "free-for-all." While ethicists may question the value of this situation to the reading public, PR firms are well-equipped to fill the gap between a client's desire for press and the press' desire to fill news holes.
Indeed, media-hungry clients may be the ultimate winners in all this. The buzz surrounding online communications has left most clients eager to get into the game.
"They know that they need it, but they don't know how," says Wilson Cleveland, an associate VP who heads the social media relations practice for Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek. "The onus is really on the agency... to not only react to it, but proactively pitch these ideas."
Of course, blogs are not the only new medium attracting attention; podcasts, Internet video, and cell phone-specific media are also oft-mentioned as forums in which the PR industry can reach consumers with less of a filter than the traditional media provides.
Weber Shandwick EVP Jennifer Risi, co-head of the firm's global strategic media group, calls for companies to seek a "three-screen strategy" focused on TV, cell phones, and desktop communications, a triangulation designed to catch customers wherever they might be. "The clutter," she says, "is worse than ever before."
Still, the old, creaky print media should never be discounted. Virtually every PR pro acknowledges that the prominent national newspapers still shape the entire news agenda and remain the shiniest jewels in a media relations crown.
"The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are still the two most influential papers that everyone else uses to drive their coverage," says Risi. "It doesn't matter what reporter you target there. They're all very important. Everyone else follows what they do."
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