Opinion

The press office is dead: Consumers, not the media, come first now

Providing a press office team to generate media coverage and respond to journalist inquiries was once a lucrative part of the PR agency model. But the fracturing of the traditional media means those days are now gone, argues Poem's Rob Lowe.

Over the past decade, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the ‘always on’ press office retainer has finally died.

It was a good earner for PR agencies whilst it lasted – it used up a lot of head hours – but 12 months worth of pitch angles, fancy breakfast events, bland research stories, stunts, baskets of expensive presents and media mailers, just don’t work any more. Truthfully, I’m not confident they ever did.

The always-on press office was a nice earner for agencies

Monthly KPIs based mostly on articles achieved with little business purpose, is a PR legacy from a previous media age that has limited to no value.

So who’s to blame for the death of the ‘always on’ press office? The consumer, damn them. They’re not reading, watching or listening to the same traditional media and if they are, they don’t automatically trust what’s being said any more – they filter out the rubbish. People are, however, using and absorbing new fractured forms of media, many of which are from their peers, who they do trust.

Press offices used to have a media first, consumer second approach, but now it’s the other way round.

The past

In the past, ‘the little black book’ containing your industry contacts, was the IP and foundation of every PR agency. It gave you leverage on stories and allowed you to lean on relationships and gain editorial inclusion for brands which wouldn’t otherwise see the black and white of print.

These days, however, unless what you’re saying is of considerably more interest and relevance, there’s a good chance it’ll never get seen. And even if it does get a brand mention, will people care? Previously you could get away with making noise about stuff people didn’t care about in the knowledge that they couldn’t help but listen. Now people don’t have to, so you have to earn their interest by creating stuff that they will care about. Press offices don’t do that.

The present

More and more clients are becoming frustrated with agencies that continue to sell these old money spinning PR tactics, because they don’t get returns. It’s like continuing to sell film cameras once smart phones have become popular. And some agencies will continue to get away with it, because some clients just can’t change internal success measures fast enough. Convincing stakeholders, who don’t use Facebook and still see a breakfast TV hit as the be-all and end-all, to think differently, just may not be possible.

The future

So what does this mean for the future? Well, simply PR needs to be more focused on what people care about – it’s why we talk about the importance of tapping into culture.

There’s no point in having a book of editorial coverage results, if people who read it don’t care about what it says.

Always-on is broken

If your insight and idea is strong enough, media relations and editorial coverage will follow effortlessly and become a byproduct of a larger, more impactful campaign, that will drive awareness and engagement organically, far further than press office baskets or a monthly pitch matrix can do.

There will still be a need for some base press office activity, especially for brands with numerous products for review or major events, however, the trick is to keep this activity to a minimum and not over invest, freeing up more budget and time for more impactful work.

By condensing all those head hours and money clients spend each year on a monthly press office, into more meaningful and impactful, idea-led spikes of activity, your work will be far more worthwhile, efficient and effective.

PR’s role beyond ‘earned media’

PR ideas can make people care about brands. And that caring, is a motivator to buy from that brand over another. Some might argue that PR only has a right to deal in ‘earned media’ and press office tactics designed to drive editorial. I don’t think so.

If your human insight and PR idea is strong enough – if it’s innovative and interesting, you should be thinking about all the other paid, owned and earned media channels available to get that idea out there. And that’s how you’ll create maximum impact and drive business results, not through a monthly press office calendar.

So what do we need to do to compensate for the death of the press office?

Change the billing format: Every client still has a yearly marketing budget – it just means condensing time and money into pots throughout the year as opposed to monthly cookie cutter actions and KPIs.

Challenge how KPIs are measured: KPIs will need to be set and measured differently. They should be activity based, not monthly; set across multiple channels and outcome driven.

Challenge briefs and ask for larger budgets: Many clients will need to look beyond old fashioned PR briefs and traditional budgets.

The most innovative brands now are investing old fashioned advertising dollars on earned media ideas that live across multiple paid, owned and earned channels, so you should compete for that pie. If you’ve got a great PR idea, invest in it. Invariably it’ll get you greater returns and cost a whole lot less than advertising, especially for online businesses.

Up skill: A room full of publicists is good for only one thing. A good idea deserves a chance to create further conversation via social, as video content, as pre rolls, supported by SEO strategy, promoted content tools like Outbrain and maybe even traditional advertising.  But to do this you need good channel strategists, people who understand retargeting, and enthusiasm to show how a combination of smart PR ideas and retargeting tactics can help move people further down the funnel.

Be more creative and intuitive: When PR was media first, consumer second, our creativity focused more on tactics to generate media coverage. Now that the focus is consumer first, our creativity needs to be more intuitive. Big data’s great for identifying audiences, issue and trends, but it’s human understanding and great ideas which will make people care about what you’re doing – and that’s the best that any brand could ask for.

  • Rob Lowe is co-founder and director of independent PR and social agency Poem. The agency works with consumer brands including Google, Expedia, Wotif, Audible, The Athletes Foot, Max Brenner and tech21.
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