Fans of “Seinfeld” recall that the series finale ended with our favorite foursome thrown into prison for violating a town’s “Good Samaritan Law,” after they watched someone get carjacked and did nothing to stop it. The criminal statute violated in this situation is known as the “Duty to Rescue” law.
If you know Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, it’s safe to say their lack of motivation to help a stranger is due to the fact that, in their minds, the carjacking didn’t affect them personally. I couldn’t help recalling this episode as I watched the layoffs of hundreds of employees at BuzzFeed and Huffington Post unfold in real-time across the Twitter feeds. This was followed by layoffs at VICE and, what I’m sure will be future newsroom gutting in the coming months.
PR professionals, on a whole, hold journalists in high esteem and recognize the vital role they play, particularly in our current political climate. In the literal sense, if we saw a journalist being carjacked I’d like to think we’d intervene. Figuratively, one could argue that the PR industry has observed the journalistic upheaval over the past decade as little more than an unwitting bystander — failing to provide assistance not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know what to do.
The stakes, of course, are enormous. PR agencies and in-house communications teams can continue to adjust tactics and strategies to justify budget allocation, but ultimately, the emptying of print, digital, broadcast and radio newsrooms makes it harder for us to do our job and succeed.
With 2,100 writers, editors and other workers in the media industry experiencing job cuts in the first month of 2019 alone, the two-part question facing the PR industry is: 1) what should we do about the disintegration of newsrooms and media; and 2) what can we do, even if we wanted to?
There are no easy answers here. Publications have undertaken strategies to remain profitable and boost readership/viewership/listenership, including: optimizing article headlines for SEO, building up the media events component of their business; adding contributors with built-in audience platforms; and sophisticated sponsored content programs, to name a few. And after viewing social media sites for years as ways to amplify their content and extend reach, news publishers are now reevaluating the value of pumping content into sites that’ve siphoned away so much advertising revenue.
Some of these strategies have been effective, others have simply bought more time. Regardless, the PR industry should not be an “innocent bystander” as this process continues to play out. There’s no magic bullet, but I do believe the answer ultimately lies in media and PR working more closely together. Here are a few ways that can happen:
Media-PR working group(s)
There will always be a subset of reporters and editors reluctant to inject the input of PR professionals into the future of media. We aren’t looking to set editorial direction here, but leading PR voices are tapped into what clients and corporations will budget for on the paid side, be it editorially-driven events, webinars, video, social media initiatives, etc. These insights can be used by media properties to help determine where to direct investment and resources, and also how to avoid dead ends.
Marketing and ad agencies still have to direct budgets to social media sites if their campaigns bear fruit. The future of PR is far more inexorably tied to the future of media, and to work in parallel but not concert to address current and future challenges is a missed opportunity.
Tap the valuable insights media can deliver
PR clients and CXOs value face time with the reporters and editors who matter to their markets and industry. There are ways those on the editorial side can share their valuable insights beyond what they write and report on for their media outlets.
It’s incumbent on PR agencies and professionals to propose programs that tap into this expertise that allows media to maintain editorial integrity and independence but also unlocks new revenue opportunities for media properties.
Remain active in advising on paid-ops and sponsorships
Clients are increasingly looking to PR for input on advertising, advertorials, sponsored content and other opportunities that have an editorial component to them. Leaving these decisions and execution to internal marketing staff, some who might only view these opportunities strictly through the ad lens, risks having clients and employers view these opportunities through too narrow a lens. PR professionals — particularly those working with clients targeting decision makers in verticals such as healthcare, education, manufacturing and government — are often better positioned to take a holistic view of how editorial, advertising and marketing should work together for maximum impact.
Becoming a more active participant in stemming the tide of media layoffs isn’t a replacement for adaptation in order to succeed for our clients and employers. That process is already underway and should continue. After all, 43 percent of Americans said they get their news online through sites like Google and Facebook. But the erosion of newsroom and editorial staffs makes the job of PR professionals more difficult and precarious, and threatens to move our seat farther away from the CXO table when it comes to influencing key business decisions. For that reason, we can’t remain mere bystanders as the rocky media business tries to steady its course.
Brian Lustig is a Partner at Bluetext, a branding, digital marketing and strategic communications agency located in Washington, D.C.