Yet more on the future of PR


This week I was interviewed by Nicholas Scibetta, Global Director of Ketchum’s Communications & Media Strategy Network, on The New Media Transformation, looking at the implications for the PR industry.

The full interview is below. Click here to read the interview on the Ketchum site.

NS: What companies do you feel are doing a good job of playing in the ‘new media’ space and why?

RD: News Corp. is the media conglomerate that has done the best job among its peers in getting into new-media forms. This has been not only through its highly discussed acquisition of MySpace, but also its less-visible purchase of IGN [a gaming network], which recognized that video games are now part of the media space.

In the start-up space, I like Edgeio, which competes with eBay and other classified services. It enables people to publish listings on their own blog or Web site, which are then aggregated into one space so people can search for and find what they are looking for across all advertisers. One of the most important questions in the media space is whether classifieds will remain associated with traditional media. Edgeio is a very interesting experiment based on the assumption that they will be separate.

NS: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about working with new-media outlets and what are the three things you think all PR professionals should know before reaching out to them?

RD: Many people associate new media with blogs and podcasts. These are part of the emerging media space, but any Internet presence that has significant reach can be considered new media. Three things for public relations professionals to keep in mind when reaching out to new-media outlets are, one, PR professionals should always be completely transparent and open in their communication with new media; if they don’t, it will swiftly boomerang on them. Two, every message should be targeted based on an understanding of their interests — you will get no respect if you contact people with irrelevant information, but you will be respected if you know what they will be interested in and why. Three, the way to engage new media is to build relationships — people in new media believe in relationships and conversations, not in press releases.

NS: What is the future of media and what is the role of both new and traditional media in PR programs, given the current media landscape?

RD: Mass media will not die — what we are seeing emerge is a continuous spectrum from traditional mass media through to small community-based conversations. For any particular client or campaign, PR professionals will have to consider where across this spectrum of media they should be investing energy to achieve results. In some cases, accessing only traditional media will be appropriate, while in others, new-media channels will be the primary target. Usually these will be complementary, especially given that traditional media increasingly takes its cues from key bloggers, and their stories can have little impact if they do not generate a discussion among bloggers.

Newspapers and business magazines, in particular, are actively looking for story ideas from bloggers, not least because it means those stories are more likely to get attention. Anecdotally, major bloggers are often pestered by mainstream journalists to link to their stories. A few high-profile bloggers linking to a journalist’s article means that it will get far more attention. Related to this is the reality that it is not just advertising campaigns that are now measurable and accountable, but also journalists, whose readership is now often directly measurable. Journalists whose articles are not read won’t have a job, and those that get many readers will quickly rise.

Newspapers and bloggers are now competing for scoops. A similar dynamic will soon emerge in the video landscape. The television networks are now experimenting with putting selected programs online, advertising slots and all. This makes sense, as it can only generate additional viewers, and value for their advertising. At that point, the number of viewers will be strongly related to how many bloggers link to the program, or people endorse it on popular video sites, such as YouTube.

NS: What impact do social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have on the media and what does it mean for PR professionals?

RD: Advertisers are seeking to reach young people who no longer consume traditional media. They can now do that by positioning themselves at the interstices of their social relationships – for example in social-networking sites. PR practitioners must be enormously careful in this space. Advertising is an overt message, so can be tolerated. Seeking to influence without being seen in the absence of disclosure is more likely to have a negative than positive impact. This means that PR practitioners need their activities in social-networking spaces to be entirely visible and clear, with the clients’ interests evident. For example, if people are rewarded to endorse a product or service, that should be disclosed. There are many possible effective PR activities in social-networking spaces. Complete transparency in these activities must be the guiding principle.

NS: What do you make of virtual environments and their impact on companies?

RD: The development of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, is still at a very early stage. Within the next decade they will begin to play a massively important role in society and business, providing a space where people can interact in ways that mimic real life. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review discussed marketing in virtual worlds; this is a prelude to far more attention being paid to this important topic. Business as well as social interactions will routinely happen in virtual worlds. This provides new ways both to identify influencers, and to participate in the new flow of messages and ideas.

NS: What is your opinion on the current talk of companies — ranging from advertising to promotions, guerrilla marketing to word-of-mouth — looking to provide offerings around new media that are more typically associated with the PR field? What must PR agencies do in response?

RD: Our connected world is in the process of radically changing how messages flow. Many organizations have the capabilities to play in this new space, and see the opportunity to build new revenue. PR companies need to ensure that the way they conceive of their business is not limited by their history. Options include explicitly repositioning their organizations, or establishing new operations that work in new areas. However, the most important action is to ensure that the necessary skills and knowledge are in place to meet the challenge of the new competition.

Some of the critical skills include a deep understanding of Web 2.0 technologies, such as syndication, tagging, identity; the ability to engage in and facilitate informal conversations rather than communicating through press releases and sound bites, a major shift for many in the PR community; and capabilities in producing exceptional — in interest, not necessarily in production quality — audio and video content. The PR community has capabilities that are unique and highly relevant to the emerging new-media space, but that gives them no right to expect to succeed against new competitors. The industry must swiftly build on its core strengths in order to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.