How the Media Business Works & How PR Programs Should Adapt

By Justin Finnegan, Vice President

The outlook for publishers and newsrooms prior to COVID-19 was not exactly rosy and now it’s almost appalling. Poynter.org has been updating a list of newsroom furloughs and layoffs since April 6 and it continues to grow each week. Like many industries, the media business has suffered significant losses because of the pandemic. The effects will be felt for years, maybe decades, to come.  

Media is a business, fundamentally. It needs to be profitable to succeed and it’s in a period of reinvention to increase or recoup revenue.

The changes have a huge effect on how businesses and brands communicate and work with media. Media’s business model has changed, and so must the approach from the brand side. Businesses must understand and align to it for a more effective communications program.  

How the media business has changed

Google Analytics’ impact on the newsroom cannot be understated. It has provided editorial boards a front row seat to who and what content is driving traffic to their channels. In fact, this summer, Google updated its analytics for newsrooms to be more streamlined and accessible. Based on Google data, media outlets are doubling down on beats that drive traffic (politics, technology, news) and eliminating ones that are underperforming. They measure based on how discoverable (by search engines) an article is. This results in more views, engagement and time spent on a page, which means ad inventory becomes that much more valuable. Rinse and repeat.  

In this model, many reporters have moved from an investigatory role more towards one of content generator. They are responsible for getting stories and posts in line to publish as quickly as possible. This is where brands will see the greatest change in how they need to approach earned media coverage.  

Proactively bringing a reporter a standalone story or announcement is losing its value. For one, a reporter has less autonomy on what they write about. Directives are issued by editors based on traffic numbers. Second, reporters simply do not have bandwidth to sink their teeth into stories like they once did because beats have been largely eliminated and newsrooms have shrunk.

Adapting PR programs to work with today’s media business

So how does this change a brand’s approach to media? Business can get coverage in two primary ways. In both, the approach needs to be largely reactive and organic versus proactive.

First is providing commentary, data or timely initiatives in proven traffic-driving areas or around issues of the day. For example, for a business in tech or B2B, Techmeme has a running leaderboard of topics on which media outlets are focused. If a pitch theme isn’t on the leaderboard, chances are it won’t get traction. Alternatively, with Diversity & Inclusion front-and-center, companies releasing diversity stats or taking major steps to improve them are finding relevance.

Second is to develop an expert reputation for executives and spokespeople, to the point where they receive inbound media requests. This takes time. It’s often achieved through a combination of hard-won contributed content, event speaking slots (big and small), an aggressive (proactive) rapid response program and an active social media presence. It also requires a unique platform and bold, solution-oriented ideas. 

While the challenges presented by the state of the media business sound dire, there is a silver lining. There is an unprecedented degree of transparency with the media that didn’t exist previously. Understanding how media functions as a business allows brands to swim with the current vs against it in their approach. 

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