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 Media, much like the most popular girl in school, has always enjoyed fevered pursuit by the public relations industry – and been contemptuous about it.

Journalists love referring derisively to PR as “the dark side”, where they believe media practitioners (as both they and PR people are) have sold their souls to corporate interests. It’s a one-sided perception of what PR’s about – much like referring to them as “muckrakers” would also be – and belies the increasing value that public relations offers them.

They should instead consider its exponents to be valuable contacts, with lots of good story options for them. And yes, PR people always have an agenda, but which media contact does not? Nobody tells a reporter anything they don’t want published, even off the record. And just because it’s a PR person doing the pitch, doesn’t make it less of a story.

Journalists have historically had a responsibility to provide their audiences with content that is topical, relevant, timely and (to a greater or lesser extent) unbiased. PR people are responsible for showcasing their clients, in many different ways, to target audiences. Often these are competing priorities, but not always.

Media under pressure 

The fact is, our world is changing and media – traditional media in particular – is under more pressure than ever to stay afloat.

The first major issue for media is that the news environment has radically transformed technologically in the past decade, and is currently undergoing yet another radical change. We all implicitly understand the effect that the advent of the Internet has had on every aspect of our lives, but its impact on news media has been fundamental.

The days of us reading yesterday’s news in this morning’s newspaper, and feeling that we’re up-to-the-minute with what’s happening in the world, are a distant memory. Newspapers, especially, simply cannot compete with the immediacy – or multimedia capability – of breaking news online.

The shift to online 

Any media title or group worth its salt does have its own, parallel online presence now, some using multiple streams such as websites, blogs, mobi sites and e-papers. But this raises a quandary: should they offer free or paid-for online content? This is a vexing question that has no definitive answer yet.

One camp argues that if users must pay for online content, then most will simply find the same content for free elsewhere. And that’s a lost audience. The counter-argument is that online content also has value – but then a specific title’s website offering has to be excellent, and sufficiently differentiated and thought-provoking, to entice people into paying for it.

The bottom line, however, is that hard-copy sales of print media – barring our more lurid tabloids, which are bucking the trend with their cleverly-niched offerings – are dropping. And lower sales mean less advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any media brand.

Additionally, the proliferation in this country of media titles across TV, print and radio in recent years, have meant that audiences are spoiled for choice – and this has also had a strong effect on ad revenue.

The advertising cake: Cutting slimmer slices 

Seen in the context of the disastrous global financial situation, the advertising pie has not only become smaller, but everyone’s getting a slimmer slice. This has forced a most unwelcome situation on some of our country’s most respected and admired media brands: cutbacks.

Media houses have less to spend on their resources, the most critical of which is staffing. For the better part of a decade newsrooms have been shrinking in size, to the point that many are now running with an absolute minimum of reporters and everyone’s workload is greatly increased.

But there is a much more worrying aspect to this state of affairs: the loss of the newsroom brains trust. Inevitably, as titles scale back on jobs to save money, they tend to lose their more expensive assets – those senior staffers whose experience, skill and expertise is indispensable for mentoring, depth and quality of reporting, contact-sharing and newsroom continuity.

The role of social media 

And things are changing yet again for the beleaguered media industry. The arrival of social media, that amorphous deluge of user-generated content that has its most common manifestations in Facebook and Twitter, means that news travels faster and further than ever before – and everyone is now a “journalist” capable of publishing “news”.

While a lot of what is posted on social media is clearly rubbish, this new form of media represents a real revolution in communications. With the technological power of smartphones, tablets and laptops, the world of media is finally democratised: the means of production and publication are now truly in the hands of the people, and they can employ them virtually without cost.

And if you want a good idea of where media’s heading, try this: at the recent One Young World Conference in Switzerland, where 1 200 young adults from 170 countries gathered to discuss sustainable global social change, they took a poll on news consumption.

Half of the delegates said they use digital media as their primary news source, and 37% social media as theirs. Only 13% consider print media to be their main source of news …

And they simply love social media. More than 70% said they would still be using it in five years’ time; 68% said they pick Google over Facebook and Twitter as the platform of the future. And 61% said Facebook has more influence than Twitter.

So what does this really mean for mainstream media? Ultimately, that they should be more receptive to the advances of sources such as the PR industry.

At least they have a clear idea of where the information is coming from, and the reasons behind such communications – which is more than can be said for many other, more easily accepted media contacts, whose true agendas are often less than obvious.

- by Willem Steenkamp


Marcusbrewster -

Public Relations

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