By Tessa Curtis, Principal, Tessa Curtis Associates,
It used to be simple. Since the days of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop! and, much later, the Watergate investigation by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for The Washington Post, exclusive stories drove journalists and journalism.
No matter if those stories weren’t political, or in far flung war zones, everyone knew that finding and breaking stories was the name of the game, no matter how workaday or parochial the topic.
This, in turn, lent a certain clarity to PR. From the ‘80s, when UK financial and corporate communications was rocket-fuelled by Big Bang, privatisations and deals, even in business and financial journalism breaking news was the route to fame and glory. PRs played a key part, infamous for the ‘Friday night drop’ of stories at Sunday business desks and boozy lunches building relationships with writers trusted to break big stories.
Things have undoubtedly changed. Public relations is now very sophisticated and media relations just one strand of an industry that is both strategic and multi-faceted. Meantime the news agenda is increasingly dominated by celebrities and driven by online and social media.
‘On diary’ stories – promoted by government, organisations, pressure groups and companies – have exponentially increased, in line with jobs in PR. More than ever stories are ‘processed’, less original work done.
For years journalists have complained that shrinking resources make it hard to get out of the office, to have the meetings and discussions necessary to develop original stories. But this is now being overtaken by another, potentially bigger, threat – from data analytics.
A major publication with new funding might once have invested in new journalists. But now even big, established news organisations are as – or even more – likely to hire digital and data analysts with technology backgrounds.
These teams report, regularly and in detail, on how well news topics, and individual stories, drive audience engagement – measured by click through, social media shares and other metrics which underpin digital business models.
Engagement Over Investigations?
Audience size and engagement have always been important. Advertising rates, for instance, have always risen with circulation and a publication’s influence along with audience size. But data analytics is a potential game-changer. By putting detailed analytics on stories and engagement in front of individual journalists, publications are encouraging them to write about what sells rather than dig up stories that may be new, different and original.
This pressure on good journalism is growing and threatens further to narrow its scope.
It takes a brave news editor to downplay a story about footballers’ wives which generates more audience engagement on a given day than anything else, for instance. And what about a young reporter, told he or she has low ‘audience engagement’ scores? Isn’t it always now going to be easier to write about Brexit or Kim Kardashian than find the next Watergate?
This also has big consequences for PR, and principally those working in media relations. It may no longer be enough to pitch an exclusive or, even an interesting story – without also demonstrating its scope for audience engagement.
In a media landscape where only stories which are already popular can fly, the range of publications and topics covered will further narrow.
This will not only degrade the quality of public debate but reduce the scope of many organisations to take part, because their business will always be too fringe, too arcane, to deliver much by way of audience engagement.
Today’s PR industry is highly creative, working dynamically with multiple stakeholders for clients. Perhaps it’s time to put more focus on the growing army of data analysts working across the media, in audience engagement.