Media convergence good for PR

Nolan Reeds and Freda Colbourne are, respectively, senior account co-ordinator and vice-president, public affairs of Toronto-based Edelman Public Relations Canada....

Nolan Reeds and Freda Colbourne are, respectively, senior account co-ordinator and vice-president, public affairs of Toronto-based Edelman Public Relations Canada.

In recent months, a good deal of discussion in the media has focused on media itself.

As massive mergers of media conglomerates and technology players dominate the news, words like ‘convergence’ have become everyday terms. Fierce debates are now underway about the changing structure of the media marketplace, and how this will affect the integrity of news organizations, commercial rights and even the cultural sovereignty of Canada.

So what is the impact of media convergence for public relations professionals and their clients? This debate remains every bit as unresolved – but it’s clear that whatever the future may hold, there is going to be added scope for successful media relations activities.

In a converged world, content providers such as newspapers share corporate parentage with the likes of television broadcasters and Internet portals. Convergence allows media to feed off one another. Through vertical integration, related newspapers, Web sites, magazines and TV networks can all end up delivering exactly the same news story.

From the PR practitioner’s point of view, this helps to create a kind of one-stop-shopping. It used to be that a story pitch had to pass various editorial filters in many different places. Now it might have to pass just one. Media outlets will draw on affiliates as sources, running with stories that they know have already been deemed newsworthy. In this sense, there are fewer gatekeepers and more open gates. The effort to get a story covered by The London Free Press, for example, could be rewarded with placement in the affiliated Vancouver Sun, and on a popular portal site like Canoe.

There may be concentration of ownership, but there’s also an explosion of venues. The merger players are all moving to compete in a market that respects niche audiences. Niche vehicles have proliferated in TV, magazine publishing and the online world. Some major dailies also seem to be expanding their coverage of niche topics, such as technology, home improvement and workplace issues – and to fill these new sections, publications are creating dedicated beats.

The result is that an in-depth story specific to a particular industry stands a better chance of being covered. As well, the creation of more focused beats means that a single large story can be spun off into many smaller ones, expanding its life cycle and increasing the number of articles and opinions we can generate on behalf of our clients.

There’s another potential benefit to the media industry’s increased targeting of niche audiences. It’s now viable for PR professionals to create tailored versions of the client’s message, designed for specific audiences – and to place them in outlets that target those audiences. We can tell the story better, and tell it precisely to those people that our client wants to reach.

News wires are also taking on greater importance – particularly in Toronto, where three new free commuter dailies have recently entered the marketplace. These publications, which have the ability to reach a large audience, rely heavily on wire stories. That makes a PR professional’s ability to pass the gatekeepers at wire services an important asset.

It may prove true that conglomeration brings cost-cutting to the press room – but this, too, could present media relations opportunities. If fewer reporters are required to deliver more stories, then we might well see in other media the same effect that limited resources have already had on community papers: namely, an increased likelihood that press releases will be used word-for-word, in part if not in whole.

All of this suggests greater opportunity for us to place a client’s ‘good news’ story. But what about unfavourable stories?

Here, convergence can have a dangerously converse effect. With fewer gatekeepers, a ‘bad news’ story can have more legs than it would if news outlets weren’t relying on affiliated outlets as sources. Increased use of wire stories can mean a loss of context and the balanced perspective that it permits. Then there are the specialty news channels, which – operating in real time and feeding off other news outlets – can fill hours of air time with a recycled story. And the online component of the converged media picture means that a misreported or damaging story can spread around the world at the press of a computer key.

In crisis situations, our clients need to be able to respond almost immediately, and with methods that address the demands of real-time news. Preparation takes on greater importance, because reaction times must be that much quicker. This often spells a need for online solutions, and for the use of services that provide real-time monitoring of both Web-based and broadcast news.

As PR professionals, our value to clients is heightened in this tumultuous media market. The demand for our ability to advocate for, prepare and protect our clients can only continue to increase in the future.

Also in this report:

- Candour gaining currency with execs: Once seen as a necessary evil, media relations is now considered essential to building corporate and brand reputation p.24

- Ongoing PR can be crucial to success of corporate ethics programs p.26

- Targeted PR builds partnerships: Can play key role for IT companies seeking alliances p.32