If PR Fails to Change Tack on Local Journalism we Fail Our Clients and Ourselves

By Nigel Sarbutts, founder of The PR Cavalry,

This blog was prompted by Roy Gleensade’s piece in the Guardian about the lamentable levels of Government support for local reporting, which you can read here.

24 hours later, the fury over a local news report about a child sleeping on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary and the social media reaction has made the issue the focus of a General Election and crystallised the difference between a form of media the PR sector has turned away from and a form of media the PR sector has invested in heavily.

This matters to all of us as citizens, but as PR practitioners it matters even more. We have a duty to act.

Local news reporting is in a terrible state and who wins if some or all of these publishers go to the wall?

Shady or incompetent public servants and all manner of criminals and fraudsters for a start. Because who will expose their failings and wrongdoing to the wider public and campaign for change?

Yes, there are lots of hyperlocal news sites and blogs that do good investigative work but they cannot effect change without a truly large audience and the power of a masthead that the community trusts.

As the story of the child on the A&E floor shows, in the space vacated by local news we now have thousands of local Facebook groups in which hearsay spreads at lightning speed as evidenced here.

Who loses? The list goes on for ever but one of the big impacts will be that the national and international news media will lose a vital source of talent that cut its teeth on newsdesks on regional weeklies and dailies.

That throttling of skills will mean an impaired ability to question the powerful and act as the conscience of the people.

The PR industry has an obligation to act to defend and protect the regional media for all of these reasons and more.

And it is in an especially strong position to do so.

Every day thousands of us employed in PR will advise clients and colleagues on media choices. We are an industry that decided about 10 years ago to adopt a digital first stance, embracing fully the idea that digital platforms promise efficient targeting of message to audience.

That idea, because it informs millions of daily decisions and thousands of hiring choices, needs to be kept under constant scrutiny.

The evidence is now strong that the idea is built on a myth of targeting efficiency see also here here and here.

Failing to see that the central promise of digital media has turned into a myth means that vast sums have moved through ignorance from traditional publishers of news to distributors of news, without understanding the social consequences of dying newsrooms and the long term economic consequences that has for the PR industry itself.

The fewer editorial departments there are, the less important PR becomes.

So PR has a self interest in there being a vibrant traditional media with actual journalists doing original reporting as well as having a social imperative to support the benefits to us all that flow from that being the case.

The Government consulted us on the future of quality journalism in the Cairncross Review. As far as I know, neither The CIPR nor The PRCA submitted a response.

Every type of PR consultant or practitioner, be they freelance, agency or in-house, should be making the case to budget holders that traditional news media not only acts a channel to customers or stakeholders, but that supporting strong reporting is more than just a media choice to deliver eyeballs, it is an act of corporate social responsibility.

It is not an equal balance of ROI between allocating budget to paid social and a partnership with an editorially-led title.

Facebook, Twitter and Google will take your money but they will never use a penny of it to investigate wrongdoing in your community, corruption in the markets you serve or in the authorities that regulate how you do business. All of that has a value which you are ignoring if you look at it in purely CPM/CPC terms.

Take a look at some of the examples of campaigns where news media takes on an issue for the greater good. http://www.localmediauk.org/Making-a-Difference

Here are four things we can do:

Evaluate your media recommendations between efficient short term tactical impact and building brand awareness in the long term. http://www.localmediauk.org/Consumer-Catalyst

Make the case to your clients that allocating budget to traditional media publishers has profound and subtle benefits that cannot be measured in a crude ‘bang for your buck’ way. Here is a good place to start https://www.newsworks.org.uk/roi

Take a “news first” rather than a “digital first” approach to media choices – will your strategy work on its own terms, without the need to for you to promote it?

Buy a newspaper several times a week. While you still can. Ask your digital native colleagues how many times they have looked at local news. You really don’t want to see the day when that’s not possible.

Photo by Jordan White on Unsplash

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