Integrating traditional and social media management services

The mechanics of PR have become much more complicated in recent years. Back in the ‘old days’ – say, pre-2005 – things were pretty much as ...

The mechanics of PR have become much more complicated in recent years. Back in the ‘old days’ – say, pre-2005 – things were pretty much as they had been since Ivy Lee wrote the first press release a century earlier, giving a rail company’s version of events surrounding a fatal train crash. Put very simply, we would work up a story, pitch it to the media and if the content was strong enough, win coverage. There was a broadly unchanging network of papers, magazines and broadcasters to talk to and hence a manageable number of gatekeepers to befriend en route to reaching our audience.

social media management services


How times change. First came the eruption of a new style of online reportage: opinion-led bloggers who embraced social publishing platforms like WordPress to create completely new media brands focused on their personal passion, and often with scant interest in the established conventions of journalism. Then, social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube arrived, providing dynamic platforms for individuals and brands to communicate directly with each other and, crucially, without the intermediary of traditional media. These soon went mobile courtesy of smartphones, which also introduced compelling new sources of portable entertainment like apps and games.

Suddenly, papers and magazines had to compete a lot harder for people’s time and attention. No wonder publishers are having to rewrite the rule book to stay relevant, like London’s Evening Standard abolishing its cover price to become a free product, or trade titles like New Media Age becoming Web only.

So, surely the writing is on the wall for ‘legacy media’? Given its parlous health, as PR people, is it time to simply abandon journalists altogether and concentrate on maximising social channels? Well, actually, no and no. Granted, the sales of newspapers and magazines are in long-term decline. At £1 or more on weekdays and double that at weekends, a quality newspaper becomes a £500 + habit over a year – and in a tough economic climate people look to cut costs. Also, for many people under 30, the newspaper-buying habit has simply never been formed. No wonder that in 2010 entrepreneur and futurist Ross Dawson predicted that newspapers in their current form may cease to exist as significant entities in the US as early as 2017, and by 2019 in the UK. Pulling no punches, he calls this the Newspaper Extinction Timeline.

But decline does not mean death: we are simply seeing new patterns of media production and consumption emerge. Around 9 million daily newspapers are still sold in the UK each day. Meanwhile news websites are thriving: in December 2011 the Mail’s daily non-bulk circulation was 1.86 million while daily browsers at Mail Online topped 4.83 million. And news-heavy talk station BBC Radio 4 regularly attracts around seven million listeners a week while BBC 5 Live pulls in more than six million. Meanwhile those same smartphones and tablets have become conduits for media titles to distribute their product: the Guardian announced around 100,000 UK downloads of its (initially) free iPad app within a week of launching in October 2011; three months later it had surpassed the half-million mark. Metro’s equivalent, also launched in October 2011, recorded 155,000 downloads in 11 days, while in February 2012 the Times reported that 119,255 digital subscribers were paying for its content across tablets, e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and the Web.

This is, without doubt, a challenging time for old media companies as they seek new business models to keep them afloat in the 21st century. While they do, as PR people, we still need to reach the widest and most relevant audience with a carefully crafted message, and traditional media remain very much part of the mix. Combine the mass awareness that they deliver with relevant touch points on digital and social channels and you have the potential to move beyond message delivery to audience engagement and advocacy.

What Can Traditional Media Do That Social Media Can’t?

To understand how best to integrate old and new media, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking where their respective strengths lie. Traditional media are built around the rule that ‘new is news’, whether it’s the latest fashion trends from Milan displayed in Vogue or hot-off-the-press economic data from the Bank of England in the Financial Times. Papers, magazines and broadcasters have historically tried to reach the broadest audience with a wide range of content in the expectation that most of their market will be interested in most of the things they report on. While there is some degree of specialisation – for instance by location (a regional newspaper or radio station) or lifestyle (a music magazine for the over-40s) – the content will still be pretty broad. A lot of investment goes into creating a high quality end product, which in turn helps secure advertising. News organisations have hard-earned reputations and sizeable resources to research deep content and analysis. 

Social media are highly dynamic and reactive. They don’t often break major stories (although Whitney Houston’s death appeared on Twitter half an hour before traditional media reported it but they can share and spread them rapidly, and will also provide a background commentary to ongoing events like the UK riots of August 2011 or the latest exploits on X Factor. People with a very specific interest, whether that’s knitting, a particular health condition, a band or a brand, connect with each other through a range of destinations and experiences: the written word, video, audio, images. The number of people involved may range from a few hundred to several million and the majority will be content consumers led by a smaller number of content creators and curators.

That’s what the media environment looks like if you dissect it from the outside. Of course the reality is that we experience it from the inside, where boundaries between traditional and social soon vanish. Tweets contain links through to news reports; blogs use hyperlinks to point readers to content off their own site; videos from one source, whether an individual or a media owner, will be embedded elsewhere. Because people experience all channels at once, the content that they read, hear or see in one environment will be reinforced when they come across it again in another. This aggregated impact is well understood by advertising agencies which develop multiple executions for the same central idea to play out over weeks and months across TV, print, outdoor, radio, point of sale and so on. PR, on the other hand, has tended to think in shorter time-frames. The focus is frequently on high impact media relations which can deliver ‘here today’ visibility that is all too often ‘gone tomorrow’. Combining traditional and digital can extend and amplify a piece of communication beyond the quick hit of media coverage to build a deeper, and potentially ongoing, connection.

How Traditional and Digital Channels Can Combine

So how could this work in practice? The first step has to be developing the right overarching communications strategy that is based on a brand’s business objectives. Get this right and the executional routes will follow. Second, it’s important to think about digital from the start and not tag it on as an afterthought. In many agencies, and in-house too, social media specialists may not be embedded within the core PR team. These demarcations will continue to disappear as digital skills become intrinsic to the PR day job, but while they exist it’s essential that all sides come together to share knowledge and agree a common starting point.

Once the strategy is agreed, the specific approaches for online and offline can be developed. Of course, these will depend on the unique communications objectives of the specific organisation. Some examples could include:

Traditional to digital migration – creating content for mass media which drives people through to an owned digital presence such as a blog, game or website. Think of it as moving your audience through a funnel: traditional media coverage provokes broad awareness and interest; those who want to find out more can do so online, and the social Web can convert that interest into an interaction.

Community development – as well as bringing people to a Web destination, PR content can be shared across multiple social networks like Facebook and Twitter. This is particularly effective for a campaign with an emphasis on ongoing media relations. Another approach would be a brand blog that publishes a regular diet of news for fans which is also simultaneously shared with the media.

Brand participation – using PR and social channels to create something on behalf of a brand. Examples include Sneakerpedia.com, where Foot Locker invites trainer obsessives to upload photos of rare and prized sneakers to an online gallery. The simplicity of the idea and passion of the fans played out in traditional media, and during the closed beta launch period alone, Foot Locker estimated that Sneakerpedia generated more than $ 1 million-worth of PR coverage. Taking a more event-focused approach in the US, HP wanted to raise awareness of its ePrint range that will print directly from an email. A live two-hour YouTube event hosted by Rob Riggle of The Daily Show saw improvised comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade perform skits directly based on suggestions emailed by viewers to the on-stage printer. As well as attracting more than 1.2 million viewers, the event created extensive media interest with coverage in the New York Times and on Bloomberg TV among others.

External relations – airports are never far from the news agenda, and Gatwick has effectively incorporated social media into its busy press centre. It practises joined-up online and offline communications as a matter of course: for instance, when it announced its vision of how it would continue to evolve up to 2020, as well as issuing a press release and linking to it from its Twitter feed @Gatwick_Airport, CEO Stewart Wingate did a Twitter Q+A. On a day-to-day basis the feed Tweets updates on issues where Gatwick is in the news to more than 28,000 followers, while there’s also a link to its blog on the media centre, putting it front-of-mind with journalists. The result is frictionless media and customer relations. Other brands are also showing an increasingly integrated approach to their press offices, with British Airways, BlackBerry and Toyota all using YouTube to deliver corporate messages around issues such as strikes, service outages and faulty products instead of simply relying on traditional media channels to put their case across.

Getting Closer to the Gatekeepers

For PR people, a major, and perhaps slightly unsung, benefit of the social age is the way in which digital channels offer an unprecedented way to get closer to journalists. Twitter is often the environment where this happens, with reporters using their personal profiles to distribute their stories or gather information. As Janine Gibson, the former editor of guardian.co.uk and now editor-in-chief of Guardian US, says, ‘Guardian journalists have a very complex relationship with Twitter. It’s a subject of stories, a source of tips, a marketing and distribution platform, a directory, a street full of vox pops, a reading list, a tool for real-time comment and analysis, a news wire, an echo chamber.

Custom and practice around the media’s use of Twitter is evolving all the time: in December 2011 the Lord Chief Justice ruled journalists would no longer have to seek advance permission to Tweet during court cases. Weeks later the BBC issued guidelines advising journalists not to break stories on Twitter before talking to newsroom colleagues, while Sky News advised its reporters to ‘stick to your own beat’, and not re-Tweet non-Sky content from Sky Twitter accounts.

Today, journalists routinely produce digital content for their audiences in the form of podcasts, audio clips, videos and blogs. And news organisations are becoming more social in their behaviour too: the Guardian has experimented with sharing its daily news lists online, and it uses its sizeable communities to feed back on stories, thus giving readers a sense that they are contributing to the editorial agenda.

At a time when the long lunch is a thing of the past for most reporters, social media provide a way for savvy PR people to have regular, meaningful interactions with this group of opinion formers. Even better, they allow us to build relationships outside of the high-pressure time-frame of a sell-in or crisis. Simply follow journalists on Twitter, re-Tweet and interact to understand what makes them tick personally and professionally, and how they like to work. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the multimedia output they’re producing and thinking about how you can help by providing infographics, video or other types of handy content. And of course looking at this from the other angle, reporters will be using social channels to track organisations they are interested in, so as a minimum, have an agreed escalation process to manage journalist queries that arrive via digital routes.

We’ve come a long way from 1906 when Ivy Lee’s first press release was reprinted word for word in the New York Times. But in today’s integrated media age, the fundamentals of PR remain relevant, as do the traditional strengths of news organisations. Both will continue to evolve at an unprecedented rate thanks to the social Web. We must embrace and engage with this evolution if we truly want to do what PR is best at: influence beliefs and behaviour.

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