Media Watchdogs, Brands & Community: Continuing the PR-Media Relations Conversation

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have received of a lot of feedback (mostly positive) on my previous entry in which I discussed the current state of affairs in the PR-Media Relations spectrum.

And the feedback I received in the form of conversations and personal messages came from both sides of the fence, PR pros and journalists alike that have both admitted the tides have changed. Not only that, but they changed a long time ago.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future of PR spurred on by various sources. The first of which was the following tweet:

And a recent conversation in which I was asked: What is the importance of media in the PR plan?

As well as the following: why are media relations important?

With these questions, I immediately thought of the previous blog I had written where I said…

While having the loyalty of journalists working for various publications is a nicety in regards to generating buzz about a product, they’re not needed.

That’s still something I believe. But a recent conversation with an experienced PR professional in the gaming industry offered a different perspective. It’s one that I only briefly touched upon:

The power didn’t escape the media it simply went home to where it belongs, with the brands themselves and the PR pros charged with deriving and communicating the messages.

Upon which I’ll use this space today to elaborate.

American journalism dates back, of course to the colonization of the country in the 1600s, the first newspaper being Publick Occurrences, which was published in Boston in 1690.

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The evolution of newspapers, specifically, was as rocky as the evolution as the country itself as we worked to define their purpose, their freedom, and their technology to increase both coverage and reach.

At the turn of the 20th century, journalism had undergone probably its last major facelift when less fictional and sensationalistic content (aka “yellow journalism”) gave way to more in-depth, factual, and “sober” articles. All throughout the century, journalists were challenging the status quo, taking on government entities, asking hard questions while ensuring their protections and freedoms granted by the constitutional amendments remained intact.

From the Great Depression, to World War II to political corruption from the Nixon Administration, the job of the journalist was clear in that they were charged with uncovering and confronting the truth and giving that information to the public. Such a responsibility had a national benefit two-fold: first, to ensure accountability by a corporation or government entity for their operations and actions; and secondly, to moderate responsibility by those same entities by offering a public space for them to directly communicate to the general public in an objective manner.

So why is all this important?

Because in the latter portion of the century, as technology began its seemingly lightspeed evolution into the current century, we began experiencing things in life that affected the way we communicated with each other. Mid-century we got television and by the end, we were already surfing the net and texting each other on our Nokias (gawd, I miss that little phone).

It was also in this time period advertising and marketing changed, and so too did the realm of public relations. The idea that “coverage” in a newspaper, magazine, or even a spot on the evening news, became commonly shared throughout the profession. It was a key component in a communications strategy (for some, it still is, which is why we’re talking about this).

Again, this begs the question why?

Because back then, businesses sought out those whom they would consider the “influencers” of the time.

Back then, the influencers were journalists and critical reviewers attached to huge publications with large circulations both newspaper and magazine. Engaging them meant a large readership (and in the case of broadcast media, listeners and viewers) that would be exposed to information about products and services being offered by brands. And we’re not just talking about paid advertising, we’re talking about more organic coverage that resulted from expert media relations practice by PR pros and spoke of product development features, reviews, and launch articles.

The number of publications in which a product offering was reviewed and covered was monitored, often manually by clipping out articles, obtaining information about the number of readers for the publication pushing out that article, and finding a way to figure it into a metric that would gauge the success of the media blitz.

But that’s the history of it in a nutshell. Coming into the 21st century with the Internet becoming increasingly mainstream and accessible, the media had a new way of reaching a lot of people, which in turn gave businesses and brands even more reason to engage it to enjoy the benefits of their spheres of influence.

Basically, brands and journalists skipped hand-in-hand in slow motion down a hill of daisies while eating double scoop Ben & Jerry’s and giggling like schoolgirls in a Japanese anime while rainbow-haired unicorns galloped in the back with gentle a “whineeeee!” That is, until…

Social Media came crashing down like a rock god wearing a tee-shirt that said, “You looked better on MySpace.” With heavy metal playing in the background, they knocked the ice cream on the ground, shoved Brand Bob and Janet Journalist onto the ground, got in their face with rocker hands and a Gene Simmons-style tongue, mounted the unicorns and rode off into the sunset of what used to be the state of media affairs while exclaiming…

“Welcome to the 21st century noobs!”

But not before they snapped a selfie — of course.

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Of course.

This leads us to today and where we are going in the future.

Social media created a new batch of influencers; regular joes with cameraphones, blogs, podcasts, small-scale video projects published worldwide, and now live streams of gameplays, interviews and general nonsensories (that’s word I just made up – use it).

I reiterate the point from my previous blog that stated that journalists now find themselves in the Hunger Games arena pitted against, well, just about everyone with a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, WordPress, LinkedIn, or any other kind of social media channel (and there are much more than you know). A fight for space. A fight for time. A fight for relevancy. But there’s one thing PR professionals should know:

It’s THEIR fight.

Not yours. While they camp out in the bushes and eat snozzberries with shanks fashioned from broken tree branches, PR pros are now positioned to do what they were destined to do, create a narrative on behalf of a brand…

…AND SHARE IT DIRECTLY WITH THE PEOPLE THEY ARE TRYING TO REACH.

Who needs media to do that? Not brands, not anymore. The power of that marketing tool has returned to its rightful place. Journalists do not need to be schmoozed, bribed, have their dinners paid for or any of the things they were unjustly enjoying prior to the advent of social media.

Time and again, I witnessed these interactions between arrogant journalists and eager-to-please military types and for what? A positive outlook on an embedment? An above-the-fold article about a military operation?

Once upon a time, journalism stood for the discovery and sharing of truth. In this new fight for relevancy, perhaps it is time they returned to that basic principle. This way, it forces lazy PR professionals who see the media as a some giant wizard full of empty promises and either forces them out or to wise up to see the short guy behind the curtain.

The future is now. The future is people – community. The stories and narratives in mind must speak to that if PR pros are to navigate the new realm they’ll soon discover is actually a few years old. This is why I admire gaming companies like Blizzard and Riot, and other companies like Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Apple. Their approach to how they engage the community is to speak volumes in the way of relatable storytelling. These stories introduce me to products and ideas and connect them with people – the people who created the product or the people so affected by it they cannot imagine life without it ever again.

This is why I believe in brand journalism. It is an effective tool in this land dominated by technology, the Internet, and social media. Ironically enough, in the digital realm, it humanizes brands and makes them accessible to me as a consumer. I feel like I can contribute to development and the future of a company or product, even if I don’t directly work for said company. That will in turn contribute to a message and a story communicated to others who can then relate to both the brand and me as they make their own decisions.

This is the essence of community.

If one can create and maintain a community that rallies around a brand, they have created customers for life. Such power does come with certain responsibilities. Instead of individuals, a brand has groups of people for whom they will be held responsible should the brand fall short on promises, should products fail, or should hidden truths reveal themselves.

So then let us return to the question posed at the beginning of this piece…

Where do the media and media relations fall in a communications strategy that focuses on people and community using digital social channels that directly links customer and brand?

Imagine an airport. A place rife with people scurrying about their lives heading from destination to destination. Different airlines taking them to different places in the world. In this metaphor, the brands would be the airlines, the people would be the travelers and the media would be the TSA – ha! But think about it, their job is to:

  • ensure safety
  • ask questions
  • investigate possible threats and confront them
  • facilitate transparency in all who expect access to the terminals (you know, with actual technology that SEES RIGHT THROUGH YOU…all exposed, and interscopically naked)

Some are nice, some are rude as hell. But ultimately, they are accountable to the American public who depends on them to give them vital information and diffuse discovered threats. No one is immune to the TSA process, including airline and airport employees. Some might go through faster than others, but EVERYONE is subject to the process.

In business, I would liken media to that because who else would we depend on to be in your face when company shenanigans go down? You bet your ass that if I found out a brand I supported was taking my money and using the profits to fund a prostitution ring in South America I’d want Nancy Grace camping out on the exec’s front yard for months on end screaming:

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So journalists, editors, publishers, in corporate responsibility and accountability doth your power lie. Not in marketing.

And brands, you are your community. They are you. Embrace it. Communicate it. Respect it.

Further interesting reading:

  • Eric Alterman, “Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper,” The New Yorker, 31 March 2008
  • Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 20.
  • John Tebbel, The Compact History of the American Newspaper (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969), 108.

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