How PR can adapt to the shrinking media market: Industry leaders weigh in

Australia's media market has been shrinking for a long time, but COVID-19 has accelerated its decline. For PR professionals, that has wide ranging impacts: How do you still build relationships with journalists and earn media coverage? Or do you stop relying on that altogether? Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson asks Rob Lowe, Helen Graney, Simone Gupta, Jacquie Potter and Stuart Terry for their thoughts.

Over the past five months, thousands of journalists and media professionals have lost their jobs.

With earned media the core component of public relations, and journalists as time and resource poor as ever, surely the PR model must change to adapt to this shrinking media market. But how?

Rob Lowe, co-founder and managing director of Poem, says the focus of PR must become earning the consideration of customers, rather than media coverage: 

“The PR model has been changing for a long time already, but it’s been slow. As a result, there’s a huge diversity in PR agency approaches. The current tragic situation with media closures, will  accelerate this change by forcing PR agencies with a media relations only approach to evolve.

In our experience, the potential of what PR can bring to brands is far greater than the generation of ‘free editorial coverage’ which is traditionally what’s perceived to be the output of PR. PR people intrinsically know how to earn people’s interest and influence perceptions. This is our core skill set we’ve developed by not having the luxury of paid media to guarantee our message will be heard. We earn first.

Advertising thinks of creative ways to deliver a guaranteed message. PRs specialise in helping brands to ‘relate to the public’ by delivering a more human message that will earn their interest.

And if you can earn people’s interest, they’re more likely to listen and change their behaviour or feelings about a brand or product. Essentially, we focus on making an impression as opposed to paying for them.

So, it’s our belief that the PR industry needs to change an outdated perception of PR as the channel that just generates ‘free earned media’ and start raising the profile of PR, as the cost-effective means to helping brands earn consideration, through greater human insight and creativity.  The outputs can be paid, owned or earned media types, so long as the thinking earns consumer choice. I’d argue that investing paid media on PR ideas that make an impression, also drives greater ROI.

In order to survive and thrive, the traditional PR agency model needs to evolve into an ‘Earned Creative Agency’, which is how we at Poem now position ourselves, and start pushing earned creative ideas that can be leveraged across all channels.”

Helen Graney, group managing director of Weber Shandwick and Jack Morton Australia, believes there will no longer be one answer for PR, and that agencies will have to get creative with using a mixture of mediums:

“COVID-19 and shrinking media markets have massively expedited the need for PR agencies to change their model and ways of working. The crisis has precipitated a seachange in consumer behaviour (particularly in e-commerce and media consumption habits), journalism is under assault, and as outlets reduce there has never been a greater proliferation (or use) of platforms as the first or only source of information.

To adapt accordingly, PR agencies will need to embrace a completely new landscape. We will not solve our clients’ problems by thinking traditionally or by relying on traditional channels. We need to continuously innovate, at speed and with boldness, which has always been a part of the Weber Shandwick ethos.

In the wake of the pandemic, many sectors have seen historic downturns. Businesses are struggling and brands are negotiating both their immediate obstacles and trying to anticipate how best to navigate future complications. Data and analytics will play an increasingly important role in our model, helping our clients to remove uncertainty and to make better decisions resulting in demonstrable value against business objectives.

As storytellers and content creators, as an industry, there is a need to discover new ways to break through the noise and tell those stories in an engaging way that resonates with the audience – from podcasts and live videos to mobile augmented reality and social stories, creativity is at the front and centre of everything we do and at Weber Shandwick, we have never lost sight of the power of creativity. In a world lacking physical connection, shared moments and the emotion of critical mass the power of great content, storytelling and creativity that moves us will be critical.

Ultimately, the most significant way in which the model will need to change is how we build lean, highly adaptive teams able to embrace ambiguity and with an openness to partner and collaborate bringing different skill sets and cognitive diversity to every client challenge. We see much of this behaviour already across IPG, but the demand from clients for cost-effective, integrated thinking that leverages the right available platforms and channels is going to require much greater levels of dynamism and agility.”

Simone Gupta, CEO of One Green Bean, says that with the shrinking media, the skills of PR professionals have to change and expand across different fields of marketing: 

“I believe in the power of creativity and culture to drive business, and the power of smart comms to change behaviour and do good. The alternative is algorithms chasing consumers around the internet.

My observations over the past year is that, people and businesses have discovered just how fragile we and the systems that we rely on are. Conversely, we have discovered just how resilient, agile and solutions seeking we are.

An ever-evolving news agenda and huge changes in the Australian media landscape has put greater importance on creating meaningful connections and the rapidly diversified role of public relations.

The accelerated and long-coming shift from print to digital has meant we’re now content creators, data aggregators, integrated and channel-agile storytellers.

This has meant there has been an acceleration of demand for skills in some areas, social media planners, content creators and producers who understand earned and owned channels, data analysts who can work out the commercial impact of influencers and SEO based PR content.

Personal and anecdotal discussion with peers is that agencies were good at jumping into emergency stations, agency life often attracts people who thrive in adrenal-fuelled crisis, and we are always on the lookout for ways to strengthen client relationships.

TRR– the agency/client relationship survey operated by The Client Relationship Consultancy – reported that across the board the majority of clients reported that their agency relationship scores have shot up.

In reality what this means is agencies, not just our own, have given away a lot of thinking and strategy for free. Has this set a high expectation that isn’t sustainable?

There are a few areas that agencies can improve – fostering better commercial thinkers, and working hard to understand the stakeholder environment that clients are in. We are often a small but impactful slice of what is on the client’s list of priorities.

I would love to do away all together with timesheets and hourly rates and move to project and outcome-based pricing, some of which we do already – but could do better.

What I am looking for now in talent as well as the technical digitally biased skills is brilliant emotional intelligence skills, the ability to connect, problem solve confidently, to understand the science behind comms planning but with humanness. It’s scientific creativity. Plus a combination of experience across culture, commerce and creativity.”

Jacquie Potter, the MD of Howorth and chief growth officer of OPR, says comms people really have their work cut out for them: 

“I’m deeply saddened by the continued contraction of the Australian media market, especially in regional Australia where the local paper is the lifeline of the community. Budget pressures, time constraints and shrinking attention spans continue to reduce our exposure to great storytelling and the investigative journalism that holds companies and governments accountable.

But the relationship between comms and journalism is still important and isn’t going away. A good consultant understands the audience and the specific interests of a particular journalist. They use this knowledge to offer relevant and useful insights that add to the conversation. This will never change, but the challenge for comms is in rethinking some of the stories we tell and offering counsel on how to make them more appealing and work harder across other channels from owned social, internal communications to paid channels.

“Beyond our relationship with traditional media, there’s a big opportunity to help clients move comms up the value chain to deliver tangible business results, by connecting their brand to their audience. We care greatly about where an audience is and how we help our clients reach them alongside earned media. Having a great story still sits at the heart of what we do, but those stories are being told in different ways and in different places. The work we are doing extends beyond earned media to connect directly with key audiences to generate leads and enable sales teams. It’s about thinking holistically as our audience is collecting information from a variety of sources – from performance marketing campaigns that supports the challenges and ops our audiences face to arming sales team with content. There are numerous ways communications can contribute to driving business outcomes.

“The shrinking media landscape is cause for concern because we appreciate its important role in society. But we’ve had plenty of time to rethink the value of comms in recent years and the future for our discipline is in delivering on the integrated approach is exciting.”

For Stuart Terry, founder and director of We Are Different, there are some promising bright spots in the media market: 

“While media closures are devastating for those directly impacted, there are some promising bright spots within the wider media market.

Mainstream news consumption continues to hit record numbers and new media formats – in particular podcasting and additional online players – show strong audience demand and growth in news content.

For Different, the power of earned-first creative remains front and centre. Our model is less focused on the ups and downs of specific outlets, instead focusing on creative work that can cut through the noise and drive media, influencer and/or social coverage at any one moment in time.

Agency structure ties into this and I’d argue independent agencies are better positioned to deliver business impact for clients in these changing times.

Day-to-day access to senior leadership remains a key selling point, offering clients security and stability that helps brands weather the storm and produce work that works – no matter the channel.

We continue to embrace tailored account teams that can dive deeper into each client’s business, while still providing access to strategists, creatives, production and content heads when needed (and avoiding the client charge-ons when they’re not).

This model is proving successful now more than ever, particularly as clients look for trusted agency teams that can deliver both on the big idea and execution.”


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