Shifting the Borders
It’s all but impossible to be involved in the communications industry without hearing phrases like “content marketing” and “social content” being tossed around right now. Brands are embracing what journalists have known for dozens of years – people want a story. And while public relations and journalism have– for better or worse – always gone hand in hand, today the lines shaping the industry have become a bit harder to define.
Media outlets are now frequently borrowing tactics from the public relations spectrum, and PR agencies are seeing the value in journalistic content. The idea behind this shift isn’t a new one. Ivy Lee, often referred to as the father of public relations, was himself a reporter for The Wall Street Journal before he began the first public relations firm in 1900. Yet today’s digital landscape offers a platform like never before to merge the two industries, said Dan Lyons, ReadWrite’s former editor-in-chief and current marketing fellow at Hubspot.
“Now even the top news outlets now run sponsored content and give brands a ‘voice’ in their news feed,” he said. “Meanwhile companies are all realizing the value of content in drawing an audience and serving that audience of customers. So they’re building newsrooms. So journalists have become more like PR people, and PR operations are becoming more like journalists.”
But what is fueling that shift? According to Lyons, one big factor simply boils down to dollar signs. It’s no secret that the media industry, particularly print media, has struggled to keep advertisers. Outlets are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of treating journalism as a business, Lyons said.
“Big media companies do this not out of some sense of what’s right or what’s best but because they need money,” he said. “They’ve traded analog dollars for digital dimes and even digital pennies. Thus they’re now more willing to give marketers a voice on their platforms. The survivors then are by definition people who are more aware of the business realities, more able to rethink the purpose and value proposition of a publication.”
On the other side of the spectrum, companies and brands are creating original content as a way to engage with consumers in the space. In May, the public relations firm FleishmanHillard announced it was refocusing to become “channel agnostic,” launching a new digital magazine, FleishmanHillard TRUE, and hiring former New York Magazine and Newsday journalist Pat Wechsler as editor and content strategist. In addition, Cision brought content marketing to PR with the launch of its Content Marketing Suite.
Lyons said changes like these are becoming a mainstay in the industry.
“I think if your company isn’t doing this already, then you’re already falling behind,” he said. “Right now it’s mostly tech companies building ‘newsrooms’, but over the next decade I think this will be companies in all industries. They see the value of storytelling. Who better to do this than journalists?”
However, the idea intertwining public relations and journalism techniques isn’t always embraced with open arms. Becky Gaylord of Gaylord, LLC, believes that while quality content is essential for reach and influence, companies shouldn’t masquerade their brand’s content as “news.”
“It might sound old school, but I don’t like it when the lines get blurred on purpose, such as when an ad is designed to look like editorial copy and labeled only very subtly as ‘advertisement,’” she said. “If content is intended to sell a product or promote an issue, cause or product, that should be clear to its audience. That way, the audience can consume the content, but also know it’s not a news report on the topic, but rather, it is information that also advocates.”
Gaylord, like Lyons, is a former journalist transitioned into the world of PR and marketing. As a contributor to PR Daily and former associate editor at The Plain Dealer, she understands the benefits of utilizing her journalistic skills as a PR pro, and being knowledgeable in PR as a journalist. She’s just cautious that the two shouldn’t become interchangeable.
“I think it’s more important than ever to keep information and advocacy separate,” Gaylord said. “They both have their place, but advocates must not pretend they are neutral, no matter how worthy their cause or point.”
However, she does believe brands need to utilize quality content whenever possible, and that firms, such as the FleishmanHillard example, can benefit from great content creators.
“I believe that more firms might be going in that direction,” she said. “Quality content is essential for reach, influence, customer service and business development. I coach my clients how to create quality content.”
“That’s what I’m involved with now at HubSpot,” he said. “Tech companies are kind of thought leaders in this space but I believe ‘corporate journalism’ or ‘service journalism’ is going to keep growing over the next decade.”
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