As most of my colleagues will tell you, I am very old. While they’re all early to mid-20s and baby-faced, I’m over 30 (I won’t be specific), and often the subject of ridicule based on my date of birth. One positive about this is that I have been working in digital for over a decade, across 6 different agencies and remember everything from cloaking to link farms. I can also recall the very early days of working with bloggers and influencers, and the eventual blurring of lines between digital and traditional media.
Few sectors are as fast-paced as digital and as a result, the relationships between PR practitioners and the media are constantly changing. While I may be slightly over the hill, I’m not old enough to remember the days of the Rolodex, but I do remember when the lines were much more clearly drawn between online and offline, traditional PR vs paid for advertising and the rest. Working with the media in 2018 is a different beast to working with the media only a few short years ago, and below are some key changes I’ve noticed in my own interactions.
We’re all in it for the traffic
As a PR strategist within a digital agency, my aim is to secure citations and links back to client sites via digital coverage. These links drive referral traffic and can lead to conversions.
A few years back, you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who knew what any of the above meant, but these days, we’re all in the same boat. Journalists are increasingly targeted on the traffic their articles bring to site and the social shares they get – basically the digital footprint of their writing.
Back in 2015, Caitlin Petre authored the report Traffic Factories, which looked at the tactics used and digital metrics measured by big name publishers, including the New York Times.
In the years since, people with job titles like engagement officer, digital audience manager and growth and audience development editor sit in newsrooms alongside more traditional press figures. Their focus is not on the story in the same way as a journalist – their aim is to understand what kind of content resonates with a digital audience, and what draws them back to their site above all others.
Local news sites have transformed
With a heavier focus on driving traffic, it’s no surprise that some of the publications most transformed by the digital shift are online versions of local and regional newspapers and magazines. Clickbait titled, Buzzfeed-style pieces (Ten Signs You’re From Tunbridge Wells!, If You Remember These Buildings in Leeds You’re an 80s Kid!) sit awkwardly alongside more standard local news stories; court reports, crime stories, human interest pieces, local business news.
This makes it more and more difficult to get coverage which may have been a reliable quick win in the past. I recently sent a local newspaper journalist news that one of my clients had expanded into their town, creating jobs and bringing investment to the area. Their reply asked me to self-publish the article into the community news section which, in their words, is “a Facebook-type feed of all the news stories and community events happening in your area”. I was also given the chance to “expand the audience I was reaching” by paying £19 a week to “boost my post.”
Show me the money
Being asked to pay for a feature on a local news site leads neatly into my next point – there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or piece of coverage).
This is a slight exaggeration and we still achieve lots of regular coverage through good relationships with journalists. Many of our clients work in more traditional sectors and a well-written press release or case study is often the best way to get featured.
However, being asked to pay for coverage is now a daily occurrence and while the lines between PR and advertising were once clear, it seems most publications are happy to ask for payment. In the past sending information would be seen as a service to help journalists form stories, but today many journalists don’t even care enough to read and digest the information. Too often I’ve been told to throw it on the website myself and, as far as I can tell, there’s rarely an editorial check.
In my younger digital days, the only things we paid for online were banner ads and the like. It feels odd to me that digital PR practitioners are providing journalists with genuinely useable stories which are relevant to their audience, but are being asked to pay – is absolutely anything linked to a brand or company seen as advertising? Does the handing over of money make anything worth publishing? I feel like this approach of 'pay and we’ll publish it' doesn’t help either side.
In conjunction with
£19 a week to be featured on a local news site feels almost reasonable when you realise how much national publications are charging to publish native advertorials, which are designed to subtly blend into the rest of a publication’s content. Newspaper offshoots including Guardian Labs and Telegraph Connect regularly publish pieces in conjunction with brands including eon, Brother, eBay, Rolex and Nespresso, and prices can run into the tens of thousands.
How can publications justify these costs? You’re paying for content with genuine value, written by qualified journalists, that seamlessly slips into the rest of the newspaper content unbeknown to many readers. It’s basically super subtle advertising and it often takes a trained marketing eye to notice that it’s a paid for bit of press.
When I enquired about a similar project for a client, I was quoted a minimum of £20,000 for a content hub consisting of 4 written pieces (and associated design etc). This cost only covered an eight to 12-week promotional period.
I can’t speak for the companies that pursue this kind of native advertising and PR, but it is difficult for me to believe there is enough value in these campaigns to justify that level of spend. After reading plenty of natively advertised content on various newspaper sites, I would also question how much better the quality is compared to a lot of much cheaper sponsored or guest post options.
There are plenty of factors behind the change in relationship between the PR practitioner and the media. For years people have been predicting the death of print and local newsrooms have had to quickly adapt to digital in order to remain relevant.
Online versions of larger print publications realised the monetary value of their audience and reach around the same time that brands recognised consumer aversion to blatant advertising, leading to the introduction of native content partnerships. However eye-watering costs price out smaller brands and companies, and the quality, relevance and usefulness to the audience must be questioned.
The shifting landscape means both journalists and PRs need to remain flexible in how they work with each other, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that traditional agency models of clients paying for a PR team’s time will need to change and potentially include additional paid placement budgets.
These are the main changes that I’ve seen – how about you?