Reflecting on media relations in 2015

Weber Shandwick’s origins are anchored in public relations. Our DNA is structured around what can loosely be referred to in 2015 as “earned media” but more accurately focuses on building and defending reputations and driving audiences to action through any number of communications mediums. Given that foundation, when the cornerstone media institution The New York Times produced a self-investigative 100-page report in 2014 on how their industry has been flipped on its head—and what they need to change in order to succeed—we took notice. One emblematic quote from the report:

Our core mission remains producing the world’s best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times needs to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience. The urgency is only growing because digital media is getting more crowded, better funded and far more innovative.

We believe Weber Shandwick (and, the communications function writ large) is on a parallel path. Prior to The Times’ report, Weber Shandwick had begun taking bold steps to ignite the very change the report defines. We have re-operationalized how we work: we have hired journalists, editorial managers, copy writers, audience planners, creative directors, strategic planners, designers, programmers, social and SEO strategists. This vital contingent of new talent integrates seamlessly with our earned media colleagues to bring all forces to bear in the new communications environment. As such, we are thrilled to work and play in this exciting new era of communications—to amplify our clients’ strategic communications efforts into something deeply measurable, material and meaningful. There’s a new kind of thrill in extending beyond column inches or sound bites and reaching directly into the hearts and minds of audiences that matter to business.

Our core belief—and one which is shared by many—is that we now live in a world where there is little to no mediation in the transmission of information. Mark Twain said “never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Little did he realize that by ~2010, “ink” would be virtually free, as would the printing press and the distribution system. Anyone with Internet access can be a publisher, whether they’re a brand, a local band or 12 year-old boy with a passion for Minecraft. The presence of all this new, accessible information to our culture affects everything about what we “know.” (Note that we don’t suggest what we know to be TRUE, necessarily.) This shift is monumental because, as a society and a civilization, what we know directs what we do: our purchasing decisions, who we vote for, what we allow in our food, what countries are “good” and what countries are “bad” and on and on. We now view the world through a much more diverse, and confusing, lens; or more accurately, through hundreds of additional lenses.

And that’s not the half of it. Where, when and how we get that information, and the sources that produce and share that information¸ have changed dramatically as well: Phones instead of paper. Tablets instead of TV. Crowds instead of Cronkite. Now instead of tomorrow morning. These nuances similarily affect our decisions and choices, just as much as the content does. How we absorb seems to be just as important as what we absorb, in other words.

These seismic shifts in information transmission and reception have revolutionized the communication industry.

It’s not only the consumers of media that have changed their behavior. As illustrated in The New York Times quote, the core media outlets themselves have changed. The New York Times has declared the need to transition to a “digital production that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper.” The vast majority of journalists are actively on Twitter, for example, using it both as a resource to research and source stories as well as a vehicle to circulate their articles. They produce vast volumes of social content that has no “traditional” home offline—videos, graphics, photographs—all intended to be shared by news consumers in a multitude of social channels. In truth, social channels themselves simultaneously are media outlets and sources of news. Take Twitter as one example of several: In as far back as 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his running mate via Twitter. Osama Bin Laden’s capture was first reported on Twitter. The SEC now accepts Twitter as an appropriate channel to announce corporate earnings. The recent Charlie Hebdo massacre was reported immediately via Twitter with videos being viewed by the world before any mobile news truck was on the scene. Best way to follow any hurricane or snowmaggedeon? Twitter.

All these changes impact what we call “media relations” in 2015. To some degree, media relations is what it has always been: garnering placement of news in media outlets. However, today, it’s a more complicated pursuit: garner those placements but then recalibrate the news for formats that are easily consumed on smartphones and tablets and furthermore shareable across multiple social media channels; execute a content strategy that thrives on mobile first, then social, then traditional channels; produce and publish content that tells a story in ways untold by the media and desired by key audiences.

To be clear, this does not mean that earned media has lost significance. In fact, it has gained significance when executed properly: a story that appears in The Wall Street Journal can be reconstituted for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more. It can be instilled with strategic SEO tactics to increase presence on Google. It can be shared and discussed amongst key online influencers and amplified online to reach new audiences that would never read WSJ to begin with. The value of a smart earned-media placement can be many times more valuable to an organization than ever before: it’s about not only securing the best earned media placements, but ensuring they live well beyond the page upon which they were born.

The changes articulated above, and that we experience daily through our client work and our partnerships with top-tier media, social networks and tech vendors, require a fundamentally different mindset than traditionally held in the communications industry today. We understand that many brands/organizations have been more cautious to adopt current communications methods. This slower pace is warranted in many regards and places an organization in a temporarily secure state—but we truly believe that security is fleeting. Organizations that disregard the changes in media consumption will lose relevance with its key audiences in short order.

Consider a quote from the CEO of Bloomberg News Justin Smith, from an internal memo to his staff:

This will be a historic year for the media industry. Technology is disrupting every distribution platform. Consumers are redefining decades-old consumption habits. Seizing this opportunity will require long-term investment and a large appetite for transformation, risk, as well as a tolerance for intermittent failure.

Our appetite for transformation knows no bounds—risk noted. 2015 is a truly invigorating time to engage in communications and we can hardly wait for 2016.

David Krejci and Danny Olson

David has 19 years of Public Relations experience, 17 at Weber Shandwick in Minneapolis, where he leads the Creative Experience team. This team ensures all our campaigns are led by strategic planning and creative direction. David also created and leads firebell, Weber Shandwick’s global crisis training program, and is a member of the North American digital leadership team for the agency.