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PR’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ moment: three ways to navigate seismic shifts in the media landscape

Thomas Lodge | 20.02.2024

2023 was brutal for journalism. Analysis from Press Gazette found that, staggeringly, over 8,000 media roles disappeared in the UK and North America. Unfortunately, the start of this year hasn’t fared much better – hundreds more roles were cut across the UK, Ireland, the US, and Canada in January alone.

Many of the publications have been cost-cutting, reducing headcount, and consolidating offerings – but there have been some wholesale changes. In the UK – AltFi – a fintech trade media stalwart – shut down shop entirely. Across the pond, controversy-laden digital media newbie The Messenger went out of business after just a year of operation.

It hasn’t just been the smaller shops either. From recent quarterly reporting, The Guardian is looking at a £39 million-shaped hole in its pocket, thanks to the digital ad market playing hard to get. Reach plc, publisher behind Mirror, Express and Star newspapers hit a one-two punch last year, telling employees that they must “set ourselves up to win”… and then cutting almost a tenth of its 5,000 strong workforce.

In journalism and PR, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. On both sides, cut and paste generalists will likely struggle the most in this new environment. However, for those specialist PR executives looking to create real value for both media and clients, there is a new way to thrive amidst the rolling heads.

Changing means, same end

To succeed, PRs need to take a step back and think intelligently about their mission – clearly and effectively articulating clients’ messages to target audiences – in a diminishing media landscape. To help clients succeed, there are three ways in which agencies can bring creativity and a human touch, by using clever messaging and new channels to deliver maximum value to clients.

1) Quality over quantity

With smaller newsrooms and editorial staff (numbers not stature) – you cannot afford to waste anyone’s time. Pitches need to be expertly tailored and crafted, make every word count and ensure your story is the one relevant and timely part of a reporter’s inbox. The shift towards prioritising quality isn’t just a response to reduced editorial staff; it’s a reflection of the changing nature of media consumption itself. Audiences are bombarded with information, leading to content fatigue (and I’d wager, actual fatigue). Only compelling, relevant, and well-crafted messages manage to cut through the noise.

For PR professionals, this means adopting a strategic, targeted approach to campaigns and media relations. It’s about doing the homework – understanding the media outlet, knowing the journalist’s beat and preferences, and crafting a pitch that aligns with their interests and the interests of their audience.

2) Building bridges

The importance of building genuine relationships rather than merely collecting contacts has never been more critical. PR has already evolved beyond the measure of success being coverage volume or column inches. Building bridges means engaging with journalists as partners in the storytelling process, understanding their needs, challenges, and pressures. It involves listening, offering insights, and assistance that go beyond the immediate sell.

3) Owned channels

As traditional media outlets become more streamlined, digital channels become more and more attractive. Social media and owned content channels offer the opportunity to get messages across directly to targeted audiences, bypassing traditional gatekeepers. Navigating this isn’t always easy – firms need digital PR support to be on top of the latest trends, understand the analytics, and need a willingness to experiment and learn from successes and failures. I’m not saying that every brand should get on VR right now (they absolutely shouldn’t as I am convinced someone will walk into traffic with a headset on) but isn’t it wild that they could?

I know that predicting an explosion in digital PR isn’t exactly a hot take – my colleague Antonia Phillips already pieced together the digital transformation underway in an excellent article here.

All doom no gloom

The industry is going through tremendous shifts and there are plenty of bright sparks. Substack looks set to continue its growth, traditional media is diversifying its offerings, paywalled publishers are growing their subscriber numbers, and print isn’t fully dead as niche interest magazines are, frankly, popping off.

With the bright sparks comes opportunity. The journey forward is one of co-creation and collaboration, where the success of clients and the media go hand in hand. The PR industry should seize this moment to redefine what it means to be communicators, where work has broader stakeholders, and messages should not only inform and persuade but connect and elevate.

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