Why the Return of Paid Content Will Be Good for PR

For years I have been watching the economic decline of journalism. The cycle has gone like this:

  • new media emerge in droves because of the digital and social media opportunities;
  • in a rush to keep up with digital and social expansion and competition, legacy print media put their content online for free;
  • subscribers, preferring free to paid, and being overwhelmed with choices, drop subscriptions and use social platforms, RSS feeds, news aggregators and so on to access news;
  • the competition intensifies and to stay economically viable (i.e. more clicks) journalism quality suffers and goes solid reporting of important news is edged by click-bait, market-driven, entertainment value;
  • good journalists accept buy-outs and publishers seek “cheaper content” by aggregating, leveraging content from broader sources (witness MLive consolidating newsrooms and its universal desk so the content is very similar in Muskegon, Detroit, Grand Rapids, or how similar Detroit Free Press and USA Today look ) and gaining free content from bloggers, user-generated content and other “innovations” (witness the GVSU student who was paid in swag for her popular Buzzfeed quizzes);
  • smaller newsrooms put out less serious news, people keep getting it for free, favoring a stream of articles from multiple sources vs a deep read of select single sources;
  • with lower subscription and readership numbers, advertising dollars continue to decline, offering even less revenue to put into the “product” of must-read news.

There have been some alternative models. The New York Times offers 5 free reads per month and then a given IP address will have to subscribe. Others, like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, offer some article free but premium articles are dangled out there with a notice that they are for subscribers only.

Other publications have emerged in a non-profit or donation model. In Michigan, many quality journalists from legacy media have moved to such publications such as the Bridge (“If you care about Michigan, please support our work”) or more recently Michigan Advance (heads up–I’ve invited editor Susan Demas to speak at GVSU and my colleagues are putting together an event for March 29 that will include a panel of journalism, advertising, public relations, and communications faculty including myself).

There is also a trend of nonprofits, businesses, and government offices becoming their own media outlet in the form of a news bureau or online newsroom that goes direct to public. A former student of mine who works for a state-wide association just asked me about this. I have written about this pointing to some examples on my blog previously–here’s a collection of prior posts on the subject.

But recently I noticed more media, from individual outlets to group conglomerates, drawing a line in the media economics sand and announcing a return to paywalls and subscriptions for their content. The latest example of this is a decision by Conde Nast for its fleet of publications. Some see the move as a bad one, but it is a trend to watch nonetheless.

Here’s why this is good for advertising and public relations.

  1. Survival of media. This will reverse the downward cycle I posed above. I heard a billionaire say once that if something is free, it has no perceived value. If people have to pay, publishers will have to put out quality reporting–meat, not candy. There is a hunger among the intelligent public for a less frantic media landscape, for news that is credible and quality. This will help good media–whether old or new–to survive.
  2. Communication environment. We should want good journalism to survive, first as citizens, and secondly as advertising and public relations professionals. Programmatic and targeted advertising made some economic sense, but it can lack qualitative intuition, creativity, and ethics. A recent study shows that most people don’t want tailored or targeted ads. Audiences who pay for content are more attentive to both paid and earned media (or ads and editorial content). And our ads and article pitches will exist next to good and not questionable content, which other studies shows matters to readers.
  3. Dedicated and aggregated audience. Digital media has been about both reach (quantity) and targeting small audiences of like minds and relevant interests. But returning to paywalls changes the equation. It may result in lower reach as not all current readers will subscribe. But those who do subscribe will be in one place, read each issue and multiple articles, have a natural interest in content and likely a net disposable income enabling them to respond to ads.

There are some considerations to work out as journalism returns to paywalls. One is whether subscribers–and maybe only subscribers–will be allowed to share content. Another is whether publishers will offer headlines and article summaries, or a handful of free articles each issue as a loss leader to draw subscribers. We’ll see. We are in what economist Joseph Schumpeter would call a “gale of creative destruction” in the media industry. What looks dire could emerge as a very good move forward.

I for one am eager to see what good things paywalls do for journalism, content, citizens and the ad and PR industry.

MLK and the Character of Our Content

Like many Americans, I have long admired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. There are many reasons to admire the man. One reason I admire him most is for his speeches, beautifully crafted and delivered with compelling cadence and style. And of all his speeches, one line from his “I have a dream” speech comes back to me most frequently: his dream that one day “we judge each other not by the color of our our skin but by the content of our character.”

I often think that as professional communicators, we would do well to adapt and amend that and measure ourselves not by attention and sales metrics but by the character of our content.

Journalists should eschew click bait, sensationalism, rushing to judgment to be first rather than right, partisan and prejudicial in what is not covered, what is covered, and how it’s covered.

Advertisers should reconsider pandering to the perceived social cause of the moment to piggyback on public sentiment, and instead work to reflect authentic sentiment of brands and organizations they represent. They should hold back on inserting questionable language in a Super Bowl ad with the intent of getting it withdrawn so they can get more attention in a social campaign. They should value not edgy copy that polarizes their “market” but consider the effect of content on all stakeholders, whether customers or not.

Public relations “practitioners” should aspire to be public relations professionals and adopt a model of practice that stresses mutual relationships, not mere attention. They  should work not to craft an image, but to earn a reputation. They should seek not to distribute volumes of commodified content, but selective and appropriate messaging that serves a legitimate, specific and ethical organizational objective.

Now, some might say this is all naive. They would point out that there are significant competitive pressures, client demands, the boss’ expectations. Yes, but professionals can respond with character and resolve, can counsel not just fulfill, speak truth to power, influence organizational cultures and not be influenced by them.

Even at that, I’m sure some will call me an idealist. Yes, I have professional ideals. That’s another way of saying I have a dream.



Marketing: A Public Relations Discipline

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It caught me off guard for 2.3 seconds. I was just starting a radio interview about something public relations related, I don’t remember what any more. But I do remember the host getting us started by asking me: “First, what’s the difference between PR and marketing?”

I had not expected the question. But I should have. Because people get confused. Some use the terms interchangeably. Even some professional trade publications assert–incorrectly in my view– that “PR is a marketing discipline.” Others talk about work they do as “marketing and public relations” in a way that implies PR is only media relations, another minimizing error.

So what IS the difference? In the radio interview I stated that marketing is about all the activities that are required to bring a product or service to market, whereas public relations is much more broad in terms of developing and maintaining mutual relationships with many publics, not just customers.

I discuss this in my classes. As simplistic graphic above shows, marketing runs deeper in terms of bringing products and services to market, to reach consumers, with the objective of sales. Marketers engage in product development, packaging design, consumer behavior research, channels of distribution, economic analysis, pricing strategy and other aspects of what have been called the 4 Ps.

Public relations overlaps with marketing in terms of one public–consumers–and one of the 4 Ps–promotion. The tactics of both professions overlap in what is often called marketing communications, or MARCOMS.

But professions are not defined by their tactics. A mechanic, carpenter, electrician, and plumber may all use the same tools at one time or another. But they have different objectives.

So, PR has a limited contribution to marketing in terms of promotion. But in terms of objectives and publics it is considerably broader. As the graphic above shows, public relations is concerned with relationships, not only sales. Positive, honest, ethical, mutual relationships lead to good things with many publics, including sales to consumers, but also employee retention, investor confidence, community support, and more.

A fellow public relations professor who works in California said recently on social media that “marketing should report to public relations.” Exactly, for the reasons indicated above. It is broader and inclusive of marketing in terms of publics of interest and overall objectives. Another way of saying that is that marketing is a public relations discipline.

There are lots of opinions on this issue. This is just my take, albeit shared by many PR professionals and faculty with whom I speak regularly. But overall, the two professions need to have a mutual respect for each other, not demonizing or minimizing what the other does. I teach my PR students the basics of business and marketing (as well as addressing nonprofit management and the political landscape), and I am always pleased when marketing programs explain PR as something more than a product news release.

Local Media Ad Slide is Concerning

Earlier today I received an email from the Grand Rapids Business Journal selling its digital sponsored content option.

For $1,100 companies and organizations can place their own stories online, have them pushed as sponsored content on social platforms, and remain in a searchable archive. It’s also called “native advertising” or the old-fashioned “advertorial.”

Previously I wrote an online column/blog for GRBJ. Others continue to do so on topics ranging from media to law. It’s a win-win–local professionals establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry and the publication gets free content.

It’s also a sign of the times.

I subscribe to GRBJ, as I do other local media and trade publications, because I still like the experience of reading print. But also I feel a sort of obligation to patronize local media the way I do other local businesses, so they can stay in business.

Reading this week’s print copy of the GRBJ, after getting the pitch for sponsored content, I was struck by the ads more than the editorial. In a 16-page publication there are 12 total ads, with 9 of them being house ads from GRBJ touting its events, its subscription options, and other sister publications such as Grand Rapids Magazine. In this issue there are 1.75 paid ad pages.

This may be why they’re pitching sponsored content. I mean, even Forbes has been doing that in recent years. And a lot of the media planners are going not just to digital, but to bloggers, podcasts, their own content-driven owned media, and social platforms.

I’m hoping this may all be the result of light ad inventory post-holiday, or that the sponsored content push is just reflective of new ownership and not desperation.

As a public relations professional/professor and just a member of the community, I certainly hope it doesn’t portend the end of a vital contributor of community information. Perhaps the incentive for some of us to buy ads is not just reaching audience but saving the channel.

Evidence That Good Management Depends on Good PR

UnknownA Wall Street Journal article yesterday about the Management Top 250–the most effectively managed companies–reminded me of a fundamental principle.

Good public relations is essentially the same thing as good management.

I learned that years ago reading a book by Peter Drucker, the management guru on whose principles these awards are based.

Public relations academics and seasoned professionals will say that public relations is a “management function.” We stress it in classes, at conferences, and on the job.

It’s important to stress, because the word on the street–and, sadly, even within the ranks of public relations practitioners–is that PR is merely media relations, one-way communication, or worse, purposeful spin and deception.

Public relations, properly understood, IS good management. If public relations is properly practiced, there are tangible management benefits. Practicing good PR means considering ALL publics, striving for mutually beneficial relationships with all of them, and communicating with them strategically through ALL available tactics.

As evidence, consider the five criteria of performance for the Management 250 and the corresponding public relations contribution to each:

  1. Customer satisfactionSome would think immediately this has to do with marketing. But PR involves consumer relations, communication after the sale, reputation, CRM (customer relationship management) and is the basis for concepts like “permission marketing” and “relationship marketing.” Customers do not only derive satisfaction from the product or service, but from the relationship with the brand.
  2. Employee engagement and development. Here, human resources comes to mind naturally. But public relations professionals who specialize in internal or employee relations have much to do with this performance indicator. Communicating beyond benefits and annual performance reviews, being intentional about culture, retention, empowerment, being the ’employer of choice,’ and other objectives are ways PR enhances this aspect of management.
  3. Innovation. As mentioned above, culture is a key objective of internal public relations. And studies have shown that companies that are innovative don’t just hire innovative individuals but work on developing an innovative culture. Culture is based on and perpetuated by communication, the purview of internal PR professionals.
  4. Social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility has been a key aspect of public relations for decades. It relates to the fact that proper PR considers not just reaching but listening to all stakeholders and working toward mutually beneficial relationships. Recent research has shown more PR professionals take on the role of corporate conscience or ethical conscience of their organization. This leads to socially responsible practice.
  5. Financial strength. OK, maybe we leave this one to the accountants and finance experts. However, numbers 1-4 above are key drivers of performance, which is what gets the finances you are able to manage.

So, while public relations is mentioned in articles about bad management and crises, the unseen truth is that the best managed companies have a good public relations person offering strategic counsel on relationships, ethics, culture and more that are well beyond mere proficiency in communication tactics.