Sunday, November 8, 2009

sneers & jeers for tiers

I know a PR dinosaur who insists the world of media relations should be regarded as some kind of medieval caste system in which there exists a “top tier” and a “second tier.” This is, of course, completely ridiculous, but in the interest of fairness to the prehistoric world, let us examine why the dinosaur believes this to be true.

In ancient times –- say, 1980-something, before widespread acceptance and use of the Internet and www -- it used to be that media outlet reach was the holy grail for pr professionals. Large newspapers like the NY Times and the Wall St. Journal, key news magazines like Time, NewsWeek and USN&WR, the wire services and the 3 broadcast outlets -- yes, this was pre-FOX and CNN,too -- delivered the largest audiences available.

Back then, if you worked in a pr agency, there was no better path to a continuing client retainer than favorable coverage of that client in one or more of those outlets. Since the metrics at the time were equally antiquated (see my post regarding clip counting and calculating value based on ad rates here), many pr folks made the argument that focusing on these “top tier” outlets made the most sense because coverage by those outlets would deliver the greatest value. And therefore, any publication or media outlet which had a smaller audience was defacto a “second tier” organization irrespective of the content it provided, the nature of its readers/viewers, or its ability to shape or drive perceptions.

Fortunately, some of us have been able to grow 2 additional toes on our hands and feet, lose the giant teeth and simultaneously expand our understanding of modern media relations. IMO, this view includes the following:

PR value is driven by an outlet’s ability to persuade the target. To be sure, it’s still a great thing if you can score a highly positive story in the NYT or the WSJ… but the problem is, how do we know your lovely bit on page B12 below the fold in the 4th column was even seen by a fraction of the publication’s readers, let alone what they thought of it? On the other hand, we know exactly how many people viewed a Youtube vid and what at least some of them thought based on the comments they left.  Plus, and it's a big duh, i know, content is king.  As REO Speedwagon said (in roughly the time of the afore-mentioned dinosaurs), "talk is cheap if the story is good."  We all know viral is here to stay, so it makes sense to get over the fact that people actually believe things they read and hear from sources other than the media moguls.

The most influential people don’t necessarily work for the largest outlets. In fact, there’s been much ado over the fact that those “top tier” folks are increasingly looking to the blogosphere, specialized content providers and other independent voices for story fodder and perspective. If you’re in, say, “green” arena, it’s good to have the ear of folks like Tom Friedman at the NYT … but you ignore Joel Makower, who writes for Green Biz, at your peril. I routinely see Joel’s ideas and stories surface in mainstream outlets, and he’s heavily quoted as an expert in the field. You don’t often see journalists quoted, except on stories about journalism. (Friedman is an exception to this, but then again I’d argue he’s not your average journalist-bear).

Immediacy trumps reach. I’m no psychologist, but I’d bet heavily there’s some scientific data indicating that a person’s ultimate perception of an issue is heavily influenced by the first information he/she gets about the topic. One may change one’s mind, of course, as more information becomes available from various sources … but it’s tough to undo the impact of the initial salvo. So the weapons of choice for savvy pr practioners have to include Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other real-time digital communications. As I said in "citizen reporting," breaking news has moved from the province of broadcast media alone to become something any human with a cellphone can create, without the benefit of editors, lawyers, or corporate communications policies. So instead of thinking, “I have to build a relationship with CNN” … think “what’re the folks at CNN looking at right now?” and participate there. This is the equivalent of skating not to where the puck is, but rather to where it's headed.

Priorities are useful -- I'm not saying that one shouldn't perhaps have a list of folks who are "must-go-tos" vs. "if-i-have-time-fors" on any particular topic ... I'm just trying to make the point that those priorities should be carefully framed based upon whom you're targeting, what you want to convince them of, and what types of results you're trying to achieve, not simply how many people may (or may not) be listening.

If you’ve got the bad luck of working for a dinosaur, or having one work for you … just try to sit tight and muddle through as best you can. We all know what happens to them, eventually.

photo credit: fugsgirl