How can PR adapt to a new, more concentrated media landscape?

Only the most agile practitioners and agencies will adapt to the faster and more concentrated media landscape Australia will see after the Nine-Fairfax merger, writes Tim Lele, Keep Left's head of corporate communications.

The future of quality journalism and diversity of Australia’s media landscape is again a topic of concern and pessimism following the Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media merger news.

For a PR consultant with many friendly working relationships with journos across the country, it’s always a kick in the guts to hear of layoffs and media house mergers, that typically see the bylines of talented and experienced journalists fade from our mastheads.

While Nine CEO Hugh Marks has stressed to staff that the merger was not about cost reduction, many see nothing but media dilution in the years to come.

“We all know media is changing, inevitably and constantly. And this deal is not about where media has been. It is all about where media will be in the future,” Marks said.

PR has always evolved alongside the changing media landscape, but with the pace of change increasing, it’s likely only the most agile practitioners and agencies will adapt to provide valuable media relations in this uncertain future.

For the journalists who remain after the merger, we’re expecting to see the continued evolution of the fast-paced newsroom, where a story’s lifespan is just a matter of hours, and a headline that isn’t attracting clicks or ‘sharable’ multimedia content, relegated to the depths of the site.

It won’t be enough for journalists to simply write a quality story, they’ll need to follow in the footsteps of their colleagues at the ABC and 7West media, incorporating cross-channel thinking into their story development to optimise for all their audience touchpoints.

For PR teams to get cut-through in this cut-throat environment, the traditional press office will need to adopt the same ‘always-on’ mentality, with a multimedia news hijacking engine ready to respond to the news agenda and add genuine value to media stories – be it data, expert opinion, case studies or visuals.

Experts vs generalists

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne, said: “It also means that three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review – are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.”

With the shift to digital consumption and demand for near-instant 24/7 refreshed content, it’s hard to imagine a future where the opportunities for specialist expert journalists aren’t at risk.

In my career, I’ve seen the technology section disappear from the Age and SMH, The Home liftout dissolved into the NewsCorp property pages and The Australian’s Weekend Professional and Health sections vanish. Technology reporters now cover telco and media, while political reporters cover transport, health and everything in between.

I hope I’m wrong, but the need for generalist reporters to churn out content as fast as it can be consumed appears insatiable.

What this means for media relations specialists is we may no longer be able to assume a level of specialist knowledge within media outlets. It’s now incumbent on spokespeople and their comms teams to be prepared to play the educator role – not just pitching an angle, but explaining the background and supporting with the detailed context. Like my mum always said, never assume – it makes and ass out of u and me. Which is why we always coach our clients before an interview to simplify their messaging: “pretend you’re explaining it to a 12 yo”. Inevitably these are the quotes which resonate.

It’s about a package that adds value to the story

The need for an integrated approach to client storytelling has become critical, with those who can offer multimedia packages to support their story and the multi-channel needs of their media partners set to succeed,

This was no more evident than through a campaign Keep Left worked on with Ambulance Victoria earlier this year. Launching a lifesaving smartphone app, through an integrated campaign which included tear jerking videos, action orientated graphics for social and online media as well as a huge government, stakeholder and media event. Not only were media receptive to the additional support we could offer to make their job easier, the results showed it led to better quality stories. More than 700 media hits used our campaign assets: videos, graphics, quotes, audio grabs, case studies and expert spokespeople.

Post the Nine-Fairfax merger, a story which appears in the AFR may end up on Macquarie radio news bulletins during the day and a Nine News story at night. Thinking about the story and holistic package from the outset could be the difference between a successful piece for both the journalist and client.

Data-driven storytelling

If more of our traditional mastheads fall victim to clickbait journalism, an understanding of the competitiveness for click-throughs and readership is also crucial. Agencies need to work harder to draw out the controversial or key newsworthy elements of their clients’ stories while simultaneously balancing their client needs if they’re going to give the story the airtime it deserves.

There is also an opportunity for data-driven storytelling based on research into online story engagement and search insights. This digital PR approach can further support time-poor journalists to help see the opportunity in a story and provide the data they need to optimise so it reaches the maximum eyeballs across channels.

Ultimately, as newsrooms across the country continue to shrink, the role of journalists as gatekeepers will increase tenfold. The smaller the gate gets, the more important it will be for quality PR principles to be implemented to make it through the gap before it closes.

Tim Lele is the head of corporate communications at Keep Left


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