The Medium is No Longer the Message*

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Public Relations Practice on September 8, 2011

In public relations, like just about every other field, we like sorting things into buckets, an exercise that is especially pronounced when we engage in media relations. There are all kinds of ways that we categorize the journalists and writers we deal with: by beat, by geography, by readership, but — most often — we sort by medium.

There are good reasons to view different media differently (and to treat them differently). Television relies on visuals; effective pitching requires b-roll or on-camera interview opportunities. Wire services rely on speed, meaning that the embargo system is hugely important. Magazines bank on design and depth. And so on.

But the revolution of publishing over the past 10 years is turning on its head the idea that format dictates content. While we still try to group writers in the online space — this one is a blogger, we’ll say; this one is active on YouTube; this one is a Wikipedian — those are increasingly meaningless distinctions. The New York Times“Prescriptions” blog is a totally different animal than Len Lichtenfeld’s blog at the American Cancer Society or Kerri Sparling’s “Six Until Me.” All have top-quality content, but each has a radically different approach to information. Lumping them all together as “blogs,” does a subtle disservice to all of them.

The future of media relations, then, needs to focused a lot less on the media, and a lot more on the personalities that use the media. It used to be, if you had a list of newspaper science writers, you didn’t have to do a ton a homework. You could pull a few clips and have a decent idea what they covered and what they needed. Now, if you get a list of bloggers or other “online influencers,” the work only begins. There is a tremendous amount of read and research needed to drill down and understand what makes each author click.

It’s an exhaustive process, and the inability to automate media relations — even in this era of automation — means that the practitioners of the future will have to be more broadly read and more nimble. Ignorance will be harder and harder to hide. Sorting writers in certain, predictive buckets will be less and less effective (and spamming huge groups of reporters with the same pitch, which was never a good idea, will become more of an evil). Putting Kerri Sparling in a “blogger” bucket is a lot less useful than putting her in the “Kerri” bucket.

* I realize that Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “the media is the message” is a good deal more subtle than I make it out to be in this post and that I may have bastardized the general concept. To McLuhan fans: I apologize.

Leonard Lichtenfeld

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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7 Responses

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  1. Thank you! This quote should be required reading for all those doing media relations, “…you get a list of bloggers or other “online influencers,” the work only begins. There is a tremendous amount of read and research needed to drill down and understand what makes each author click.” (as well as the following paragraph) It is FAR more productive today to do one-on-one targeting versus the old “spray and pray” methods of press release distribution.

  2. Tressa — I’m blushing at the comment, but I think that the spray-and-pray model (which never worked all that well) has moved from simply ineffective to an out-and-out liability. If you don’t have time to read the person you are pitching, you have no right to be wasting their time.

  3. Awesome post! And so true, now that the internet gives us multiple options to get our info. People don’t care so much about video vs writing, as they do about the personalities they want to follow.

  4. Brian
    I think it’s more than upside down…it’s in ‘highly interconnected pieces’ ;-).
    In social media, the world is organized in community of like minded people, some, aka influencers, actively publishing content in their own media and networking with others.
    I see that from where I work as we are making an attempt to make visible the natural underlying org of social media in 1000’s tribes. Each tribe is made of 100 to 1000s of thnose new ‘mini-media’/influencers…and each of them is different. The devil is in the details more and more nowadars

  5. Laurent —

    Funny you should mention this. I’ve spent way too much time in the last month charting social graphs of Twitter users to better understand how the shape of a “tribe” influences the way that information flows. And from what I’ve seen, you’re absolutely right: the shape of a community is yet *another* dimension that should inform our pitching. These are complex times, and media relations pros are going to have to bring a truckload of skills to the table if they want to do their jobs well.

    — Brian

  6. Brian

    Yes, more skilled required including some tech savvyness.
    Tech can do a lot of ‘ground-work’ but no automation as you highlighted. Ultimately, someone will need to understand the underpinnings of it and the data it produces to weed out the bad data and keep the good one.
    If that sparks an interest, our platform (used by agencies amongst others) has 400 tribes with an average of 300-400 influencers in each of them. And the graph 😉

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  1. Doktor Spinn’s Daily PR Links | DOKTOR SPINN linked to this post on September 15, 2011

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