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Are Media Telling us to “Tear Down that Wall”? June 2, 2006

Posted by The PR Cassandra in Posts.
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There are many pressures on media.  As ads begin to flood to the search engines, ad pages in print publications have dramatically declined.  According to Jupiter Research, the online ad market will reach $18.9 BILLION by 2010, and that search engine advertising will surpass display advertising.

In the 1990s for tech PR, trade publications were a major outlet for stories on new companies and technologies.  But, since those pubs relied on advertising, as the ads dropped so did editorial pages.  This has led to consolidation of media under fewer and fewer publishers, and, in some cases, the end of some publications all together.  This was true even for business technology publications.  Remember Upside?

Well, this is about advertising – what does this have to with PR?  After all, isn't public relations the art of persuasion versus the pay your money and say what you will world of advertising?  In PR, we depend upon whether an editor is convinced through our efforts that the news and stories about our clients are worthwhile covering. 

Advertising is strictly "pay for play."  And, isn't there supposed to be an unbreakable wall between advertising and editorial that a PR person would attempt to breach in the past at her or his own peril? But, I have increasingly been noting what I call "pay for play" PR. 

For example, technology media often published directories and evaluated products for "product of the year" awards.  In the past, one could get one's client mentioned in a directory – and, if you wanted to stand out – there were payment options for logos or special formatting.  There might also be some form of editorial review and control, inclusion was not a foregone conclusion. 

Now, more and more directories want payment to include a company at all, and "product of the year" awards are coming with hefty fees and too many "winners" – after which one is solicited to purchase special plaques or other commemorative items. In the literary world, this sounds an awful lot like "vanity publishing." Are the media telling us in PR that we need to "tear down that wall" between editorial and advertising in order to ensure coverage for our clients?  Is this one of the reasons that news blogs are becoming more popular over traditional media? 

Am I the only one who thinks that network news is no better than People magazine or Life & Style? If this trend continues – what will be the value of PR?  We are already seeing that as presence in search engines, blogs and online media is racing ahead of traditional media, that PR is increasingly perceived as a commodity service.  After all, all one has to do is hire a content generating service – let them write articles that are really "advertorials," and a strapped-for-time editor will pick these up and print them without any human, let alone PR pro, intervention.

What then is the role of PR in today's search engine optimized world? Do we in PR even have a role?  We do, but it's changing dramatically.  News releases that used to be lovingly crafted and used sparingly are sent out over internet news distribution services, such as PrimeZone Media or BusinessWire, in huge volume (I call this "PR by the pound") – not so much for coverage by editors in publications – but to increase traffic to a company's web site and to show up on online sources.

As the client's web site really becomes the source for information, PR can add value by providing optimized and relevant content for web sites, news releases and advertorial-type articles that can be picked up by media with or without a placement fee.  PR can also provide the strategic counsel and overall management of our clients' overall outbound communications strategy in light of today's new realities. 

Our profession is changing – and, if we don't understand the dynamics of the publishing business and the shift toward search engines, pay-for-play PR and web sites as publications – we'll be left behind. 

I have to thank my client, and dear friend, Ed Prentice of TeleVoce (a PC-based Internet telephony start-up) for dragging me kicking and screaming to this year's AdTech – hey! I'm in public relations, not advertising – why do I need to know this stuff?  Trust me, we do.

Some media are letting us know that the "wall" between editorial and advertising is not as solid as it once was.  This is a signal that we in PR need to be well-rounded marketeers who can add value in a world where the rules seem to be changing every day.

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