As the newsstand shrinks, communications professionals are making more room for themselves in the expanding domain of digital media. But this historic shift in the delivery of news content has also challenged PR practitioners—especially those who got their start as reporters or editors. These are the folks for whom grabbing a morning cup of coffee and reading their favorite paper is a deeply ingrained ritual. Many of them are going through withdrawal, though, because their favorite paper is shrinking or has ceased publishing (think Denver’s Rocky Mountain News).
It was not long ago that owning the town’s daily newspaper was considered a license to print money. No more. Legendary names in news—the San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald and even The New York Times—are in trouble. Small-market outlets may be an exception but, generally speaking, newspapers and magazines across the U.S. are slashing staff as the recession bears down and advertisers run to the Web. Or, they are simply disappearing.
The massive migration of news and advertising from print pages to the screens of computers and PDAs is changing the game for communicators. And, outside the journalism profession, perhaps no one feels the change more keenly than PR practitioners.
All communicators are adjusting to the new reality of a declining print media industry. But former reporters or editors may feel an extra twinge as they watch their old papers and colleagues struggle. Journalism is a compelling line of work with a proud history, and it is hard to imagine what will replace the news reporter as public watchdog. Will bloggers apply themselves to the drudgery of attending city council, school board and planning commission meetings? It is still too early to know.
All this said, the reality is that we communicate in the world we have, not the world that was. Their skills as journalists give former ink-stained wretches a solid foundation for success in this new world. Good reporters are adept at moving fast, gauging the situation and separating the steak from the sizzle. Skilled reporters know what is real, which means that they:
• Go where the action is. The story that resonates with readers comes from the reporter on the ground. In the same way, communicators have to embed themselves in the online world through involvement with formal media and with bloggers and other players in the social media. If you are not doing that, you are not the expert your organization or clients need.
• Nail down what matters to their audiences, and how their storyline can resonate with them. The key question a news reporter must ask is “So what?” Make certain you can answer “So what?” with “So this.”
• Fill the information void. As print publications retrench, they are publishing less material to which bloggers can react. If you can give them credible information to help fill the gap (consider it “news you can use”), you will become a valuable source for gatekeepers of the new media.
• Measure the response. Reporters hear reactions firsthand from news sources and editors and through letters to the editor. In the online realm, you have to follow coverage, blogs and tweets and read comments voraciously. To help cut this huge task down to size, use a monitoring service to help identify key channels and extract the essential meaning from the continuous chatter.
Today, every PR practitioner is learning to work in a media landscape that starkly differs from the one that existed just a few years back. In the new environment there are several crucial questions that a PR professional must ask—and be prepared to answer:
• How should I respond to the contraction in printed newspapers and news pages? Indeed, is print coverage still worth pursuing?
• If online is the name of the new game, how do I assess online opportunities so that I focus on those outlets or writers having the most potential to reach my target audiences?
• How should I evaluate blogs and other social media? As I recount for my company or client the time I have spent on, say, Twitter, what do I say when I’m asked “So what?”
And what about the many professional communicators who are not newsroom veterans? No problem. Whether you entered the PR profession from a school of communications, a marketing job or another relevant activity, the skills that will spell success in the online media world are skills available to everyone. Here are some key examples:
• Strategy: The communication management process—measuring audience awareness, setting communication goals, crafting strategies and messages, implementing a communication program and measuring the results—is something most ex-journalists must learn on the job in PR. It’s basic for PR and marketing grads and, best of all, it just makes sense.
• Clear and concise writing: Good writing is essential, and not just because so much communication (even in 140 characters) is delivered on the printed or digital page. Equally important, the process you go through to assemble, organize and articulate your story builds skills important for every manager. Journalists weren’t born good writers. They learned the skill. Read widely (including Strunk and White’s ageless classic, The Elements of Style), work with a tough editor, practice and learn from your mistakes.
• Expertise: To contribute something of value to the online conversation, you’ve got to be more than a communicator. You must be an expert on your organization and industry. Get involved in the give-and-take, build your network and establish your credibility.
The newsroom has been a great training ground for public relations professionals. As print publications struggle and content goes digital, both journalists and PR practitioners are working to understand—and to shape—what comes next in communications. The good news is that, former journalist or not, you can make a name for yourself in a world gone online.
This article was written by Steve Shannon, executive vice president of BurrellesLuce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.