5 Ways PR Must Evolve Alongside the Publishing Industry

Human – business evolution

It wasn’t that long ago that publishing companies had huge advertising budgets and found traditional marketing channels—direct mail in particular—incredibly effective. Then, PR as a channel to drive sales was a rarity. Now, immense outdoor advertising budgets have vanished, with spend moving to digital and mobile channels, and investment in the brand has suffered. In this turbulent media landscape, which is really just the new normal, CMOs are more often seeing the value in activating PR investment in the brand at many levels.

In spite of this much-appreciated new demand for us, our job as PR practitioners has become ever more challenging. As publishing continues its evolution and old media giants compete with countless back-room bloggers and brands for attention, getting content disseminated far and wide—and to very specific target audiences—is an increasingly sophisticated task. (Just proving the dollar value of PR today is a major pursuit in and of itself.) To carry out our work effectively, PR has to evolve alongside publishing in five important ways. 


Charles Barber of The Economist.

1. Saying ‘no’ more often.

There has been a massive increase in the volume of media outlets online, which means there are many more opportunities that come through each day. However, as any good PR professional knows, there is no value in coverage for coverage’s sake. To optimize results and make the best use of resources, it’s imperative to know the specific audience we want to reach with our message and to have strict criteria for evaluating each outlet and opportunity. This analysis means PR dollars will sometimes be used in surprising places. For instance, we may choose to target a niche publication over one with tens of millions of unique visitors—because if those visitors aren’t our audience, they won’t convert.

2. Accommodating changing consumer habits.

Because most people don’t have huge amounts of time to consume information, they use filtering mechanisms to focus on what’s most important to them. To make the filtering process easier for our readers, The Economist recently launched the Espresso app, which gives our readers an opportunity to quickly get up to date on the most important news by the time they get into the office each day. The same responsiveness and pithiness is required of PR professionals, who need to understand the ever-increasing number of media channels, contexts and device filters where the target audiences live. This understanding allows us to optimize how our messages are delivered through these channels and to determine how we can derive the most value from them—e.g., driving traffic back to our own website.

3. Appreciating the many ways in which PR is now adding value.

The growing prevalence of digital publishing means that PR is having a wider influence today and a more direct impact on things like search rankings, social audiences and other sources of direct and indirect traffic. As these benefits become increasingly valuable to brands, it’s important to consider and track each of the areas where PR is now having a positive impact. Yet, as Albert Einstein is credited to have said, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” 

4. Setting clear business objectives.

With more publishers competing for the attention and dollars of readers, many of them have specialized to attract and retain niche audiences rather than delivering content to a large audience. Having a specialized audience, however, makes it all the more important to know what you are trying to achieve. I believe business objectives are best achieved in this order: Decide what you’re trying to achieve, which will lead you to your target audience—to their reading habits, to events they go to, etc. Then, before deciding on your strategy or devising any tactics, get to know this audience. When we know precisely who our audience is, we are better able to set clear goals that identify, for instance, the target titles we want to have a presence in. Once we’ve determined those, we can be very rigid when working toward our goals.  

5. Demonstrating the dollar value of activity.

The ability of publishers to measure their audience and activities has never been greater. While PR is one step removed from many of these analytics, we still endeavor to put as much measurement in place as possible to tie a dollar value to our coverage. For instance, Economist.com carries paid advertising, which generates revenue for The Economist. One of the roles of public relations is to drive an engaged audience to Economist.com, one that interacts well with the advertising, ultimately helping more advertisers to decide to buy ads with us. We can also measure, through web analytics, how many registered users and new subscriptions come from websites which have picked up our PR stories. These examples do not by any means capture all of the value that PR delivers. It’s my belief that in some instances it takes a few years before the true impact of PR can be evaluated in dollar value terms. It is only by proving that PR is having a positive impact that we can ask for more budget to help drive greater awareness and ultimately improve conversions. And only by constantly evolving alongside publishing can the industry prove that impact and continue to prosper.

Charles Barber is Vice President, PR and Thought Leadership, for The Economist. Stay in touch on Twitter: @CharlesSBarber.