Rory J. O’Connor is a senior vice president and partner in the Corporate Reputation practice of Fleishman-Hillard. He came to PR after a 21-year career as a print journalist, including 10 years with the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose and Washington, D.C. covering technology companies and Internet policy.
These days, when someone in PR talks about a newsroom, chances are they don’t mean the editorial offices of The Wall Street Journal or CNBC. They are talking about the kind of newsroom you’ll find on the website of a company such as Pacific Gas and Electric (an F-H client, in the interest of full disclosure) the public utility for northern California.
While the company’s PR team maintains traditional relationships with the local, regional and national media covering major stories involving its business, the company’s online newsroom now represents one of the main ways PG&E provides information and its point of view to customers, investors and anyone else with an interest in the company.
PG&E’s newsroom is much more than the “For the Media” section of a typical company website, which often is just a repository of news releases, fact sheets and annual reports for reference by the media. Launched in 2010, PG&E Currents is written, designed and presented much like the website of a local newspaper or TV station.
There are lead stories, topically arranged sections and local stories tagged and searchable by community. It features candid news photos, infographics and even short videos on everything from pipeline safety to community events. The content is produced and edited by a staff that includes several former journalists.
PG&E’s newsroom is hardly unique. But it is a demonstration of how changing information consumption habits – driven today by social networks and mobile devices – have changed the way PR thinks of and approaches its job. PR’s responsibility today is establishing and maintaining a direct line of communication with a company’s customers, suppliers, investors and the public to reach audiences where they are looking for information. That is key to maintain a company’s reputation and support its business goals.
In some ways, this approach isn’t new at all. Companies have turned to PR to help tell their stories and shape their reputations since the profession was born more than a century ago. PR practitioners have used some combination of interaction with the media and direct communication to tell their stories, through newsletters to staged events to celebrity endorsements to speak “unfiltered” to the widest possible audience.
But in a world where the media controlled the major conduits between companies and their key audiences, the business of PR was fairly straightforward. PR departments and agencies, mostly staffed by former journalists, used the relationships and knowledge gained in their former line of work to help clients get coverage. In turn, companies measured the success or failure of their campaigns by weight: Number of clips, airtime minutes, readers, or viewers.
The Internet’s commercial debut in 1993 began the media’s decline as the major gatekeeper between company and audience. And as media newsroom budgets shrank, readers and viewers looked elsewhere for information. With the cost of entry on the Internet effectively zero, they found it. Today, there are millions of blogs, and anyone with a camera-equipped mobile phone can be a “citizen reporter” – or at least, a citizen who posts images of what she sees and experiences.
It’s new competition for the professional media, although sometimes these new “reporters” intersect with traditional media, such as the gallery of blizzard photos from Instagram posted by The New York Times in February 2013.
As consumers have changed where they get their information, they also have changed how they form their opinions about brands and products. A company’s reputation now is influenced largely by what audiences read and see online – from companies directly, and as they share in their social communities.
The Fleishman-Hillard Global 2012 Digital Influence Index found that 66 percent of consumers in the United States and seven other major economies used online information in forming purchase decisions, compared to 43 percent for newspapers and 42 percent for TV. Perhaps more telling is that nearly half of those surveyed (42 percent) currently follow or “friend” a brand on a social networking site.
Nearly one in five individuals now looks to Facebook to obtain information about a brand or product, and almost two out of three consumers surveyed use a mobile/smartphone to gain information on a brand, product or destination at least three or four days a week.
Companies, aware of the new importance of direct conversations with customers, now expect PR to deliver not just coverage but protect and enhance reputation. In fact, many companies now employ chief communications officers who have a seat at the top management table.
This combination of consumer habit and corporate expectation means the work of PR professionals is now much the same as journalists: producing content. That content must be in a variety of formats and in an array of places so that consumers encounter it where they choose to spend time online. (It’s no accident that, as with traditional media sites, PG&E Currents links to the company’s Facebook page with 209,000 “Likes” and Twitter feed with 12,500 followers.) In fact, PR has become an increasingly complex discipline that is taking on roles once held by separate marketing, advertising and digital departments or agencies.
Think of this in four buckets: Paid communications (such as ads); Earned media, the outcome of the traditional PR/news relationship; Shared communications, which are social networks like Twitter; and “owned” content, such as PG&E’s newsroom or a company CEO’s blog. This “PESO” approach is important because of the ways in which all the channels are increasingly linked.
Online ads targeted to the screens of select consumers and postings on social media channels work together to inform consumers of a new product, for example. They in turn interest consumers in visiting the company’s website or Facebook page to get access to other materials about the product — perhaps a YouTube video demonstration. The buzz that’s created also generates media interest, and the resulting stories or product reviews can be communicated quickly to customers through Tweets or links on the company newsroom.
To be effective in this model, PR professionals must focus on identifying those individuals who are the crucial influencers in social conversations. These are the important people to whom we need to tell a company’s stories, because this “shared” information actually drives coverage and opinions.
In fact, it’s often the most effective way to reach the media. Overstretched reporters wear out mouse pads instead of shoe leather and read those same online sources and monitor the same social channels to identify stories, trends, controversies, problems and the like. So the content created by PR and distributed is now one of the chief ways to reach the media – although, by the time the media cover a story, it’s likely people’s positions have formed.
Besides the diminished emphasis on traditional earned media, another fundamental change is that PR has become a routine 24/7 operation, not just when there is a crisis. The Internet and social networks themselves operate to increase transparency by companies. When anyone can talk to anyone, when the stories a company tells in one channel can be compared to what it says in another, when supporters and critics can engage in a conversation and present their own data to bolster their case, companies who are inconsistent or opaque will see their reputations suffer – and do so very rapidly indeed.
For example, AT&T (also a major Fleishman-Hillard client) maintains a newsroom like PG&E and also a global staff constantly monitoring posts on its Facebook page and relevant Twitter traffic. Those teams respond immediately and directly to comments on those social networks, as well as to alert the rest of the organization when necessary.
In part, this serves as a valuable early warning system for service problems or the kind of customer complaint that, unresolved, could turn into the basis for negative media coverage.
But it’s also about reaching key audiences effectively. Consumers who get a quick response to a complaint or problem directly from the company are more likely to form a positive opinion of the company. AT&T’s Facebook page has been “liked” by 3.8 million other Facebook users — more than the readership claimed by USA Today and on par with the January 2013 Nielsen ratings for the “Today” show. That makes it a more important “channel.”
Does this mean PR and the media are growing permanently apart?
No. Earned media remains an important part of the PR mix. If it wasn’t, then Tesla CEO Elon Musk never would have directly responded, in great detail, to The New York Times and reporter John M. Broder about a negative automobile review in February 2013.
Both the audience provided by the media, and the credibility of coverage from aggressive and honest reporters who either validate or debunk a business’ messages, remain important to the public and shapes reputation. It keeps businesses honest and forces them to be transparent – which is good for shareholders, customers, employees and the public.
In addition, the noise level online is tremendous – one reason companies choose to create their own newsrooms. The media by their nature cut through that noise because their audiences seek out the information they provide.
It’s incumbent on PR in this new reality to understand the changes on the other side of the fence and work harder to provide journalists what they need. So PR professionals are changing how they provide and present information, using the content created for other channels and shaping it to the needs of reporters, editors and producers.
Few people would want to return to the days of mailed press releases, “blast faxes” and back-slapping press agents. Even in an era where social networks and company content dominate the world of PR, maintaining a professional relationship, and an understanding of what each journalist needs to do their job, remains important to PR professionals and their companies or clients.
More than ever, PR shares in common with journalists the work of storytelling. And a well-fashioned story, based on the facts, is still the only one worth telling.