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Examining PR’s role in the quality of contributed content

by | Aug 29, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

Earlier this year, TechCrunch announced the closing of its contributor network (Crunch Network) in lieu of a new, invite-only contributor strategy. This shift was meant to help TC’s editorial team mine the gold from the dirt, now that the media landscape has become oversaturated with quick-churn content and corporate thought leadership pursuits. Everyone seems to have a byline, even if they don’t have much to say….

But for public relations professionals looking to elevate the profiles of the executives they represent—particularly new entrepreneurs who have yet to build names for themselves and have a tough time gaining the attention of journalists—this was somber albeit somewhat unsurprising news.

In January, Medium’s Evan Williams also articulated a vision of a digital world where quality content is rewarded. “We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention,” wrote Williams.

So, what is PR’s role in the quality of content? And how can PR professionals ensure they’re adding value to the content ecosystem, not just adding self-serving messaging to the noise?

How we got here in the first place

Perhaps op-eds and advertorial started the slippery slope of today’s jumbled media landscape. Then came blogs, self-publishing platforms, native content, and so forth. The expansion of digital media (post-print) and downsizing of editorial staffs paired with the growing demands of companies to engage with customers in new ways created a deeply complicated environment for corporate storytelling. With complication came challenges.

“As more PR agencies discover that part of a successful PR campaign is pushing out thought leadership pieces on behalf of their clients, more publicists are taking short-cuts and pumping out quick, mediocre content that doesn’t offer any new insight,” said Kristen Grossi, co-founder and CEO of talkTECH Communications. “Journalists can see through this, especially if the article looks like it was ghostwritten with a bunch of general info off the internet.”

Julia Giona, head of public relations for Qualtrics, offers a different perspective: “I think content marketing has played into TechCrunch’s decision more than PR has. There are more blurred lines between paid, earned, sponsored, and owned media, and not many people truly understand the differences anymore, especially at the executive level.”

Case and point, when we ask traditional brands what their executives see as PR success, they often refer to high-level mentions or features in a handful of top-tier tech or consumer publications instead of results tied to business outcomes such as website traffic, interactions, and sales.

If we, as an industry, were more focused on producing PR that drives real business outcomes (as opposed to features in the most-sought-after publications), we’d be pitching less often and contributing less to the endless, pitch-filled inboxes of journalists.

How to be a better “PR citizen” within today’s complex media landscape

For one, send fewer pitches: Take it from a journalist: “PR people should send far fewer pitches, like maybe one tenth of what they currently send,” said Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur. “I receive probably 100 PR pitches a day, and 99 to 100 of them aren’t a fit for Entrepreneur. If publicists were only pitching publications they were confident would be interested in the story—a confidence built upon research and a deep familiarity with the publication and the kinds of stories it runs—I’d be getting only a small handful of pitches every day, and those pitches would more regularly lead to coverage.”

Time and time again, our customers see greater results when they roll out slimmer, more highly targeted outreach strategies. For instance, MobileIron, a mobile cloud security solution, is using data around the PR metric Power of Voice to identify the right journalists to pitch as part of their global PR efforts. This allows them to shave off inefficiencies and only target the journalists who are truly positioned to be interested in their work.

Consciously decide whether a story is best suited as earned or owned media: Does your story warrant a pitch to a journalist or not? Would it be better suited as a blog post or other self-published thought leadership content? In the past, earned media was the default. That’s becoming less and less the case now that companies have greater means for sharing their own stories with audiences who actually care about what they have to offer.

AirPR customer Experian realized a 500 percent increase in content consumption and traffic to other parts of its website as a result of its increased owned media efforts over just one fiscal year—and they’re not an anomaly.

Use surveys and never-before-seen data to substantiate the content you pitch and produce: We’ve all heard the advice Show, don’t tell. PR is the perfect time to put it into play. Add weight to your stories with original data culled either from your own business or using the survey service of your choice.

Creating one compelling, data-driven pitch is a far better use of time than sending a handful of pitches lacking substantial evidence supporting your point or argument. For example, Credit Karma uses Qualtrics to tell data-driven stories about American consumers, its members, and the brand itself in its earned and owned media.

Reconsider what makes a great source: Feifer admits that pitches touting If you’re covering subject X, here’s an expert… rarely help journalists. “I don’t think I’ve ever replied to a pitch like that,” said Feifer. “Those pitches are frequently tied to the day’s news, and as a monthly magazine editor, I’m just not chasing the daily story … I’d have to be working on a story at the moment that email came in. Otherwise, I’m just going to delete it and forget about whatever source is being pitched.”

On the other hand, Feifer notes that if he is interviewing someone, he wants the human version of them, not a messaging-schooled robot. “The best sources are willing to tell me how they think and feel, and reveal their concerns, mistakes, and challenges,” said Feifer. “When a source only sticks to their talking points, or speaks like a Harvard Business School textbook, or glosses over the challenges they’ve faced in their business, I lose interest and am more likely to exclude them from the magazine.”

Lastly, if the reporter isn’t biting, let it go: Follow-up emails are sometimes helpful to journalists if there was interest in the first place, but most follow-on messages are passed over. “No need to force the relationship,” said Giona. “If there is not something in it for both sides, move on. You’ll waste your time and alienate a reporter who may, someday, be a great match for your company or executives. Don’t hound them so much that they’re simply sick of your name. Be sincere, timely, and always go into a pitch of call thinking How can my info help this reporter?

Contributing to a healthier media landscape

When it comes down to it, we all want what we consume (read, watch, and so forth) to be quality and credible. A TV show with poor screenwriting can be a hoot to watch, but that will never be true for news (earned or owned).

And despite the fact that it can feel like an uphill battle to get journalists’ attention, they need PR pros just like PR pros need them. Audiences like to read about businesses and brands they admire. But we, as an industry, need to get better at pitching and producing quality content if we want PR’s contributions to the media landscape to add color, not clutter.

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Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer
Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer is co-founder and CEO of AirPR, a PRTech company helping businesses showcase the impact of their PR efforts through streamlined public relations measurement software.

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