Media relations is dead? That's the real fake news



These are dark days for the media.

Newspaper circulations continue to decline (Daily Mirror down 18.1% on the year to December 2017; The Telegraph down 14.5%; Daily Mail down 6.5%). Even digital only news outlets are in trouble with Buzzfeed about to make a third of its 140 UK staff redundant.  

All publishers are now looking nervously at the effect of Facebook’s new policy of downgrading posts by companies in users’ newsfeeds with the amount of traffic it refers to news sites already in sharp decline (by 25% between February and October last year according to analysts

The collapse in advertising revenue - predicted to be 21% down at Trinity Mirror this year – has hit print publications hard with even the Mail experiencing a 3% decline in revenues from its two newspaper titles last year.

Little surprise then that some in the PR industry have declared that media relations is dead. Why bother?

Yet, if there is anything we have learned in the last month or two, it is that media stories still have the power to set the agenda.

The revelations that led to Damian Green’s resignation were first published in The Times and Sunday Times. The Daily Mail’s campaign on plastic waste has been an undeniably powerful factor in both the government’s sudden enthusiasm to tackle this issue and industry’s response.

The mainstream media is certainly under pressure but it is still a potent force. Between them daily newspapers still sell almost 8m copies in the UK and two British newspaper websites (MailOnline and The Guardian) are among the top ten most visited news websites in the world. In December Telegraph Media Group chief Nick Hugh outlined ambitious plans to hire 39 journalists as part of a push to attract 10m registered users.

Meanwhile the broadcasters, particularly the BBC (no 13 in the list of the top ten news sites), still have immense reach and influence. The BBC's News at Ten still regularly pulls in more than 4m viewers and Radio 4’s Today programme claimed its highest ever audience at the end of 2016, reaching 7.45m weekly listeners.

But perhaps the biggest reason media – and media relations – do and should still matter is trust. Corporate reputations are under pressure as never before and the need to be able to articulate what it is the company stands for never greater. Amid the controversy over fake, news mainstream media still offers one of the best – and most trusted - channels for doing that.

As the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer report published this week makes clear, the credibility gap between social and traditional media has never been more evident with trust in traditional media up by 13% on last year to 61%, a six-year high, while trust in social media fell two points to 24%.

According to last year’s Reuters Institute Digital News report when it comes to separating fact from fiction, the number who think the traditional media does a good job is more than twice that for social media (41% to 18%).

But just as newspapers have had to adapt to the challenge of the internet by becoming multi-channel platforms, media relations itself has to adapt to the changing landscape.

As a news editor and a reporter, I’ve seen firsthand how much effort is wasted, how many press releases are wrongly targeted and badly written.

With smaller teams and greater demands, journalists are generally under greater time pressure than ever. They don’t have time to read through a long, badly written and poorly structured press release in the hope of finding a story buried near the bottom. And if you don’t know what the story is then what makes you think the general public is going to find it interesting?

Yet, the shrinking media pool also means there are fewer people going in to PR agencies who have had any experience or training as a journalist. And there has been less demand as many of the big agencies shifted the emphasis from earned to owned media like Youtube channels, Facebook pages, blogs and company websites – from content communication to content creation.

The result has been a diminution in the quality of media relations.

Inevitably, given the range of audiences and channels they need to cater for, media relations is going to form a smaller part of what communications professionals whether in-house or in an agency do. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of quality. Less can be more if it’s properly thought through and well targeted.

Done properly, media relations can still provide more bang for your buck than many other forms of communication and those who write it off risk making a big mistake.