The Media Has Changed, Communicators Must Change Too

We’ve all seen the headlines telling us traditional media is dying, moving towards extinction or dead already. We’ve also seen media organizations such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post change the way we view, perceive and dissect content. Add onto this that people’s attention spans are increasingly limited and the battle to recruit readers is at a feverish pitch and you have a perfect storm of change.

On the other side of media, the public affairs space, there’s been an ongoing discussion about “traditional” tactics and whether they still work. For instance, does it still make sense to blast a press release when you could simply tweet an article or blog posted on a website to thousands at once? It’s a good question and there still seems to be a lot of ripe debate over whether there’s an actual answer.

With change, however, comes opportunity. Sometimes modifying writing styles to make them more conversational and less wonky can actually help readers digest information better and spread content flow. When I worked at the House Energy and Commerce Committee we caused a stir by posting a blog on the Keystone XL pipeline in the style of BuzzFeed (complete with GIFs) (Full disclosure: I wasn’t the genius behind the idea). While a lot of the comments on the blog were positive — some were negative. One online commentator went as far as to write, “Dear U.S. Energy & Commerce Committee: You are NOT Buzzfeed. Sit down.”

It was at that moment I knew we’d won the news cycle that day. Our daily web traffic was so intense it was a wonder it didn’t crash. The negative comments aside we were able to break through traditional media by posting an interesting blog and using social media to amplify it. More people now know about the pipeline because of silly GIFs than they ever would have from a stodgy press release.

However, change is not always for the better. Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times recently opinioned about the state of traditional media. In an interview with POLITICO, that also included former Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, Keller articulated his concerns about where the news business is heading. “I worry less about the disappearance of media than I do about the disappearance of really quality media.” This concern translates into a shift in how communications professionals, such as myself, must reach members of the media if the quality isn’t there.

PRNewser recently reported on a study by The Indiana School of Journalism which showed reporters agreed or strongly agreed 48 percent of the time that social media helps them “communicate better with relevant people.” But the key takeaway was that 54 percent of journalists used social media to find sources and 56 percent used it to find additional information. From a public affairs perspective it behooves us all to be on these social channels or risk our clients’ voices not being heard.

Jared Keller, Director of Programming at PolicyMic, a news analysis startup, recently shared with me his thoughts on the changing relationship stemming from social media between journalists and those in public affairs. “Social media can help reinforce real-life relationships,” said Keller. “For journalists, it can be an incredibly useful tool to seek out and cultivate sources. For public affairs types and politicians, it’s another avenue to connect with constituents and build an engaged base who can help advocate for different causes.” As with everything though, Keller notes there is a downside in social media that “the DC Twitter echo chamber can potentially skew the priorities for journalists as to what issues really matter outside the Beltway or the Acela corridor.”

Buzzsumo, which tracks social media content sharing provides a snapshot into the current state of where news is coming from. While traditional news heavy sites continue to rank high a lot of content comes from blogs, social forums and of course Twitter.

All of this is to say we need to think differently about how we do outreach with the media and don’t forget there are more sites and publications than just The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Consumers of content aren’t just engrossed in their newspaper like they were in this photo  — there’s a whole world out there. Blogs, social channels like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare, and others offer tremendous value to spread content and promote your client’s goals to a broader audience. We must be a part of that discussion.

The ship is turning in the public affairs space – it’s already turned in the media and if we don’t “change horses in mid-stream,” there’s going to be a whole lot of us simply left behind in the new media landscape.