A New Battle Emerges: Journalists v. PR Pros

Everyone in public relations or journalism knows it. It’s a love/hate relationship. In many cases, we make friends and contacts that mutually benefit each other’s careers. In other cases, we do what we gotta do to make our client or managing editor happy. Some PR pros are better than others, while some journalists are easier to work with than others – it’s just the name of the game.

I’ve split my career on both sides of the media relations aisle. First as a journalist, and later a PR pro. I’ve always thought that both disciplines were very similar, but not exactly synonymous. In the past, there has been a very distinct line between the two, but that is all about to change. Welcome to 2012 – the year it all turns upside-down.

We all know what’s happening with journalists.
The newspapers (that are left) aren’t hiring journalists. And, if they are, those coveted positions are few and far between and certainly don’t qualify as “get rich quick” schemes. Media outlets big and small face limited resources and new constraints on their time and revenue potential. The long-form skills that used to set them apart from the amateur blogger are now out-of-fashion. News consumers prefer short form, media-rich experiences.
Granted, some exceptional journalists – those with a decent brand and some business savvy – are making it work. They understand that content comes in many shapes and formats and their adapting quite well.

Many PR pros are walking towards early retirement.
I see it all the time. Traditional PR, traditional measurement and a traditional mindset have worked for them, so they just keep with it. They continue to face pressure from potential new clients who want something different, so they hire younger or try to out source “social media” in hopes they can keep pace (but thinking deep-down that this is a passing trend).
The PR pros that are seeing the most success are the creative ones. The pros that have seen past the old skill sets and are becoming an integral partner of their clients. They’re more than their “PR voice,” they are their eyes and ears too. Their listening and engaging and most importantly, their telling their client’s stories – not just spamming it out to journalists and hoping for the best.

Journalists begin to steal some PR thunder.

Despite the warning signs (and blog posts from people like me), PR pros who are still wrapped up in press releases will miss out on a far bigger opportunity – brand content creation.
First, larger brands began to hire journalists and bring them in-house as content chiefs. Robert Scoble and Rackspace come to mind. And, if you’re not into bloggers, take my friend Justin Williams, a former journalist for The News Journal, a Gannett Newspaper, who left the newsroom in favor of the bar room joining Dogfish Head Beer as their Chief Storyteller.
Now, however, it’s getting even easier for brands to find journalists to generate their content.

As reported in Ad Age last week, a new startup called Contently has found that there’s more demand for quality freelance content coming from brands-turned-publishers than traditional media companies. Contently lets journalists create online portfolios and profiles for free and provides tools to brands to find the right journalist for a project, and manage assignment workflow and payments.
So, instead of PR pros filling the content need for their clients (like they should be), journalists will instead fill the void. And good for them. I’m a proponent for anything that moves the ball forward and disrupts the status quo (for obvious reasons).
If you’re a PR pro, you need to listen up. Brands and businesses are the publishers of the future. Media outlets are your competitors now, not your biggest allies. If you’re not finding ways for your client(s) to be the best content producers for whatever industry they’re in, then you aren’t doing much, quite honestly. If you think press releases and old school distribution channels like wire services will get it done, then you will have a lot to talk about post PR career.

Companies like H & R Block and PepsiCo have discovered this and are capitalizing. (Disclosure: Both PepsiCo and H&R Block are PitchEngine customers). Metzger & Associates, a PR firm in Boulder, Colorado who represents H&R Block set out to help the tax preparation giant become a viable resource for customers searching for tax answers. By publishing hundreds of tax tips, Metzger helped H&R Block rise to the top of the search engine food chain just when consumers were searching most, in February and March. You can read about Metzger’s success here on the Cision blog.

PepsiCo hijacked the SXSW story this past year creating a live channel online and running it non-stop during the popular Austin conference. Former PR Newswire staple, David Weiner, and team interviewed celebrities, tech speakers and more serving as the media outlet for the entire conference, not just the PepsiCo scene. The content they produced was shared in wholesale fashion.

Brands will gain major distribution outside of PR.

Before now, brands just couldn’t get distribution for their content unless it was newsworthy. And even then, some journalist had to find it interesting enough to rewrite and distribute to their media outlet’s audiences. PR relied on PR wire services for third party placement – buried on sites like Bloomberg or Forbes – but not accessible by a single consumer directly. See Magic Behind PR Distribution for more on that.

From now on, paid distribution will provide a huge audience for branded content.

Outbrain automatically places your content at the foot of articles on sites like CNN, Fox News, Mashable, TMZ, Aol – you name it. Outbrain uses a cost-per-click model similar to Google AdWords. You provide a piece of great content and decide how much you want to spend per-click. You only pay for the views you get – unlike the old PR wire model where you pay a hefty fee regardless of placement.

Who wins the battle?

Brands and consumers win. And that’s why I love it. Regardless of who creates the content, the best will rise to the top. We’ll see more and more vertical content that is hyper-related to our interests – think American Express OPEN Forum, but for whatever you’re interested in.

So, what’s next?

> You’ll see brands do amazing things.
Red Bull has it’s own production company. And Red Bull Media House and Brain Farm put out an incredible film called, The Art of Flight in 2011. It’s a snowboard film of epic proportions that boasts the most advanced and progressive film making technology ever used in action sports. It’s a result of brands doing things they know their customers want, instead of someone else doing it and trying to get it sponsored. It’s a small example of where we’re heading.

> You’ll evangelize for brands without feeling like a marketer.
When brands create great content, people share it. We’ll continue to see more brands become publishers and provide cool things for us to talk about. The focus will be less on the interaction we saw during the rise of social and more on content. To be more specific, it’s not just going to be a customer service play anymore.

> You’ll get more of what you need.
Brands are experts in their industries. After all, they’re the ones who set the bar, figured out their customers, or solved some problem. In many cases, consumers want to hear from the experts, not a buffer.

As a PR guy, I spent a lot of time getting people straight to the source – whether that be a product developer or an engineer. They didn’t want to hear my iteration, they wanted to plain talk. It might not be as sexy, but it’s certainly going to get to the point.

> You’ll become a better storyteller
You’ve written AP format press releases for so long you could do it in your sleep. Drop a couple quotes in a template and it’s all good, right? Now, you can start telling the story that your clients want people to read, not the one a journalist decides to tell.

This is your opportunity to flex your understanding of news consumers and the brands you represent. It’s your chance to steal a piece of the advertising budget and increase your value without sacrifice. If you don’t, there are journalists waiting in the wings who will be happy to pick up the change.

So what’s it going to be?

15 Comments

  1. Andrea Cook

    Well said and timing is right on! Might you consider live event correspondents for hire as an emerging trend? Seems like a necessary type of practice that will be needed as more brands become responsible for their own media.

    • Jason Kintzler

      I think that's exactly the kind of thing brands will be looking for and could certainly use. What's funny is that media outlets themselves haven't even dialed that in yet. For example, when Rupert Murdoch's "The Daily" launched on iPad, the video pieces were poorly commentated by writers, not on-air types. I think brands will demand better.
      Thanks for reading and sharing!

  2. Stavros Rougas

    We written and insightful, a worthwhile read for any PR pro or journalist looking to apply their trade.

    The PR world is full of smart people but few are willing to take the risk to move full force into the areas you are outlining. While they may eventually take over making those that work in the current manner increasingly unemployable, many still fear biting the hand that feeds them. Ad agencies that get a cut of lucrative TV contracts therefore decide to resist online campaigns come to mind.

    I have co-founded a startup that is rethinking an aspect of the PR-journalist dynamic (mediaspot.me) and I can say that the resistance to change and innovation is palpable in PR regardless of the logic and return on investment, in this case it's free. Those who move forward and take advantage of the shift taking place will replace incumbents, some of them quite large.

    I'm going to tweet this post to my followers @StavrosRougas and @mediaspotme.

  3. Liza Payne Jones

    Great post. I'm not sure it has to be an "either/or" scenario. Rather – and as you mention – communications professionals need to constantly challenge themselves in regard to how they can be a better part of the conversation with customers. That doesn't mean just blasting content AT them (in the form of a press release or any other type of branded content) but actually listening, talking and responding to consumers – and producing content that serves the outcome of those conversations.

  4. Justin Williams

    Thanks for the shoutout, my friend. When I started thinking about making the leap from journalism to PR, the first place I looked for advice was the original PE community on Ning. Believe me, I was skeptical and had all those "dark side" stereotypes ringing in my head. But then a thoughtful PR pro said this: If you find a brand you believe in, PR can be just as rewarding as journalism. Years later, as part of the Dogfish Head Beer team, I can confirm this. Find your niche, folks, and embrace it.

    • Jason Kintzler

      So awesome to hear, Justin. I went through a very similar transition. Storytelling comes natural to you – finding cool content to write about makes it all click. Congrats on finding your way! And thanks for sharing ;)

  5. Michael McKenna

    This is the future. Thanks.

  6. Harold Cabezas

    …I could not agree more. Stories abound, yet the creative storyteller is in more high-demand than ever before. Well-written, I will definitely share to my networks. Hope all is well, Jason!

  7. Mike Geraci

    Having spent the last two years starting and managing the content division of a PR firm, it is my opinion that it isn't an either/or proposition. Content and PR (both traditional media relations and digital influencer relations) are complimentary. No matter how remarkable the content is, it still needs a publicity boost to get it the visibility required to gain traction (think books and movies.) Great content can capture and celebrate a brands or culture's essence, great PR people get that content seen by the people who should see it.

  8. Susan Gosselin

    Jason, this was an amazingly good story. I will be definitely following you from now on.

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