Subscribe to industry newsletters

Search jobs

PR 2014 - suffocating or liberating?

Ask any public relations consultant or internal PR person and they will show you how much PR has changed in the past 15 years. But, whilst we have coped with game-changing digital media platforms and even, newsroom cutbacks - for most there's an unstated battle to truly capitalise and thrive on these changes.
PR 2014 - suffocating or liberating?
© Rafal Olechowski -
This is largely because organisational culture has not understood what is needed for communicators to do their jobs in this new world. Perhaps, this is even more true for media relations consultants who are put under greater pressure to deliver that outdated mode of measurement - column centimetres.

In short, of the many things that have changed - one thing that hasn't is the expectation of C-suite executives. The result is that the PR industry has, by and large, manned up - wrestling with effective use of social media platforms, managing Twitter Feeds and re-formatting content for online media - in an attempt to deliver the column centimetres.

However, the truth of the matter is that this approach is largely an adaptive strategy and whilst it may have been necessary, it is increasingly difficult to sustain. By and large, communicators have been backed into a corner by a series of factors that may not have been within our control but that we certainly have the power to change.

Executives' mindset needs to change

The first factor is the mindset of executives. This requires us to create a sea change in the perspective of executive management - a grouping that, by and large, still measures their personal success on whether they've appeared in the weekly 'premiere business magazine'.

Yet, ironically, an audience at our fingertips - that for so long has been the holy grail of PR - is now discounted or at least, regarded with reserve. Below is one such example - which left the PR team in question at a loss for words.

This particular client holds a media conference about an acquisition. The conference is well attended by a range of media including a senior journalist who writes for a major newspaper. The journalist writes what any PR person would consider a great story - except for this one fact - the story is used on the newspaper's website. It is not used three days later in the print edition. The client is devastated. The website is a nice-to-have, but it's the print edition that 'feels more solid.' All attempts to show the client readership figures for the website (which by the way equals or exceeds the print copies), alongside statistics for other online media, leaves the client unmoved.

Print viewed as 'proof positive' of more credible exposure

So, despite delivering exceptional media coverage - the executive management remains of the view that being able to 'see and feel something in print" is a more credible medium than digital. Somehow, digital seems too accessible, too easy. An analysis of why this perception might be the case is irrelevant. The fact is that as many and often, more people get their news (especially business news) online. It is no longer the way of the future - it is the way of the present.

However, before we explore what the solution might be to creating this sea change - let's be clear that this is not the only challenge. The other element for which media relations people are valued is 'good media contacts.' And this one is on us! For a long time this has been our currency, our competitive advantage. Yet whilst relationships will always be valuable - they hardly hold the same sway in getting your story into the media or getting your point-of-view across as they once did. There are some economic reasons for this but in addition, digital has fundamentally shifted the weighting from who is saying it to what is being said. In other words, the gatekeepers have become the search engines and with few limitations on space - the audience truly can experience all viewpoints - the ultimate in objectivity.

Change acknowledged, but not embraced

So, where we stand is that whilst organisations accept that the communications landscape has changed - the mindset hasn't shifted to truly embrace that change and further, has not let go of old frames of reference in terms of how to use this new brand of public relations to communicate with that market.

Secondly, the reality that 'what is said' is more important than the medium has yet to really take hold. NB: For those of you who are wondering when we will know it has really taken hold ... it's just as we know how anything else in business has truly been adopted - someone will have to take the decision to invest money in it.

But back to the emphasis on 'what is being said." And ironically, I've just had a potent illustration of this point. As I write this article, my cabinet shakes, rattles and rolls - dropping most of its contents - as THAT earth tremor hits Joburg. And the first thing I do - once I realise the walls aren't actually going to collapse - is to get onto Facebook and Twitter to see who else felt it. By the time the 1 o'clock news is on - a mere 20 minutes later - I already know that the tremor reached Durban and Botswana, as well as the locations of many office parks that evacuated people. No better example of citizen journalism or emphasis on content!


So, in short, content is king? 'No kidding," I hear you say. "Is that news?" And yes - It is true that for a while now phrases like content is king, content management, content curation and now, brand journalism have taken on a whole new weight. Content, content, content!

It sounds like the property guru mantra to buy in the best location that you can afford - so location, location, location. The only problem is that property at a good location is easier to find than good content.

One of the reasons for this is that organisations simply aren't geared up to making or finding or putting in the effort required to create good content. This is not a new problem - how many times have clients asked you to get them into the paper when there's just no story to tell? But now content has a different dimension. Not only does it have to be newsworthy - it also has to be engaging, interactive and - if at all possible - scintillating enough to go viral. Moreover, the frequency with which such material needs to be produced is overwhelming.

Since changes in how audiences consume news is at the forefront of how people use the Internet - even ahead of how the Web impacts on shopping trends - what is required is not just to adapt. That isn't enough. What is required is a re-genesis of the public relations machine.

So how do we achieve that?

1. The first step (although it's more likely that these are parallel steps) is to re-educate the client about how the media environment works today! Having coached media influence (not media training) for over a decade now - you can see clients shift uncomfortably in their chairs as soon as we start talking "new media". But the fact of the matter is that a successful media relations campaign can no longer be executed with a weighting towards traditional media. It's not only the expectations of CEOs that have to change but also their fundamental understanding that the burden of producing content now firmly requires the resources of the organisation and not the media house/journalist.

2. Logically then, the second step is to put in place the resources required to produce content. This means an entirely different skills set than companies and consultancies are generally geared to have. Understanding these skills set, finding the resources to do it, deciding what needs to be done and of course, getting it done requires the kind of communication strategy that indeed takes a fresh look at the world. And before there's any mention that social feeds and YouTube videos are for B2C or that some brands just aren't exciting enough for this type of communications - let me clearly indicate that 'exciting' is an inappropriate term. We've passed the initial love affair with the Internet where 'exciting' was the only factor. Exciting is fine. But content that is resourceful and a resource is better.

3. The third step - understanding that you are not alone! Content creation is an iterative process. Content is built like bricks in the corporate wall. It is built in conjunction with staff, experts, and clients over time. That is one of its big advantages.

This new communications collateral is invaluable to the organisation in so many ways - carrying so much more weight than the average interview.

Yet, it is only possible with an executive team that understands this new way of working and its boundaries. And without their support - the targets of media relations people becomes more impossible to achieve. The new PR world does, indeed, open up a whole new landscape of work. It is indeed liberating. However, without an organisation that understands this - we're left with tired media releases to over-strained journalists and a list of suffocating demands that can't be delivered with the fast-dating mechanisms at hand. Getting organisation on side in this new challenge is the responsibility of the PR team. It is necessary for the welfare of the organisation and the sanity of the communicator.

About Ulaysha Sukhu

Ulaysha Sukhu is a strategist, issues management specialist and communications consultant at Firefly Consulting and has worked in the industry for 20 years.

Let's do Biz