Public relations is one of the more complicated parts of any company’s marketing approach. It can encompass a wide variety of endeavors, including:
- External communications: Engaging with a broad audience of external stakeholders, including customers, investors, vendors, and potential employees
- Internal communications: Speaking to internal audiences, including employees and executives, as well as boards
- Crisis management: Communications planning for times of crisis or scandal
- Public affairs: Communicating with government officials or organizations, including for lobbying purposes
- Media relations: Building relationships with “media” figures, including news organizations, reporters and editors to reach audiences
But as more brands delve deeper into building out brand publishing efforts and create original content to talk to audiences, they’re reconsidering the role that one branch of PR, media relations, plays.
Media relations is difficult. It is part art and part science, and involves building relationships with journalists or other “content creators” so they are aware of what a company is doing and are more likely to cover them or feature their executives in stories.
But this part of PR has gotten harder recently, and more brands are reconsidering how many resources they devote to essentially renting a publisher audience when building their own may pay off more handsomely in the long run.
In our work at Toolkits, we’ve increasingly heard from companies who are busy retooling their communications function to focus on internal communications and employee engagement and crisis PR and moving resources away from traditional publicity and media relations in favor of building their own direct editorial operations.
There are a few contextual reasons for this:
- Broadly, news consumption is down. After the halcyon days of the Trump presidency, media organizations are experiencing a sharp fall back to Earth. Axios data showed that engagement with news content fell in 2021 as fewer “singular storylines” were available to capture attention post-Trump and the pandemic. We’re currently in the middle of a major global crisis with the invasion of Ukraine, which may prove to drive up news consumption again.
- Arguably, publishers haven’t helped themselves. A narrow focus on subscribers has meant serving the needs of a niche audience – covering what they want versus covering what they should. In some cases, this means media organizations are writing to audience bias, because that’s who they must speak to. As The Rebooting put it a few weeks ago: “The news industry has too often been pulled into our tribal wars of politics, with many subscription publishers choosing, consciously or not, to cater to audience biases versus challenging them with differing viewpoints.”
- Of course, we also happen to live in a time of peak content. It’s coming out of our ears. This is evidenced by the rise of ‘slow news’ initiatives such as Tortoise, and the FT’s new “pared down” news app that is meant to be a way for people to consume just the news they need to, versus doom scroll their days away. But at the same time, news organizations have also suffered broadly from overall news-related fatigue.
All of these issues put more pressure on the traditional publicity function. There are a lot of stories they’d like the press to cover – the problem is the press doesn’t want to, for a variety of reasons.
In this reality, brand journalism or brand publishing may be a better use of resources. Brands who choose to focus resources on publishing and editorial over traditional publicity may find that:
- Owning an audience is better than renting one. It can mean lower customer acquisition costs as brands can directly own the audience relationship and monetize it themselves.
- Nobody knows a brand’s story better than itself. As a reporter, I routinely fielded calls from companies who didn’t like a specific way I’d phrased something, or felt I hadn’t quite used the right terminology when it came to describing a product. It wasn’t necessarily wrong, but not the way they would have done it. Brand publishing can afford companies greater control over how they and their products are positioned.
- Brand publishing may lend itself to clearer metrics. Publicity has long suffered from a lack of clearly defined KPIs. Evaluating good comms planning is difficult, and placing a story someplace doesn’t have a clear and straightforward impact on the business. Comparatively, brands can set clear metrics to track for owned publications and know if what they’re doing is actually helping the business.