“What is the point of PR in the digital world? Things have moved on, no? I get my news from Twitter these days. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper.”
If this sounds like you, you’re certainly not alone in thinking this way, but, statistically, chances are you’re over 45, a.k.a. a ‘boomer’ or part of ‘GenX’.
As we enter the 2020s, an unexpected generational shift is happening. A younger generation of marketing managers, immune to the ‘digital dazzle’ that blinded many of their older counterparts, now recognises that ‘earned media’ is a powerful and under-used marketing tool.
What is driving this shift in perception among younger marketers? And, given the influence of the mass media as a communications channel, why did PR become the Cinderella of the marketing mix in the first place?
Traditionally, the impact of PR campaigns has been viewed as difficult to measure. The PR industry offered metrics such as ‘advertising value equivalent’ (AVE), where the editorial space earned through PR was costed in terms of equivalent advertising space, but this often failed to convince clients. In truth, AVE actually downplayed the true value of earned media – a third-party endorsement by a recognised media title is, generally speaking, far more influential than a paid-for ad. As a result, boomer marketers embraced digital advertising with open arms because it produced real-time ‘tangible’ results which could also be measured easily.
When Google Ads launched, many saw it as a silver bullet. You could reach very targeted audiences at the precise moment they were searching for your product. It was a heat-seeking missile, so why waste time writing press releases that journalists might or might not publish?
Advertising campaigns could be turned on and off so they only ran when you needed them and of course, most important of all, you could measure its performance precisely. Unlike PR which always seemed a bit ‘smoke and mirrors’, not easy to measure and a slow burn.
And so online advertising quickly eroded PR’s market share, budgets were cut and we lost our place on the board. For anyone under 30 working in marketing – PR really has never had a role in the mix. It is one of those things that feels old hat, out of date, not relevant in today’s multi-channel media landscape.
That is until the costs of paid advertising got out of hand and then the attribution figures of many digital platforms were exposed as artificially inflated. At the same time, the consumer has become increasingly immune to advertising and, in many cases, is taking active steps to filter brands out of their online experience with aggressive adblocking software. Likewise, social media has become infected by fake news and the sheer lack of accountability of the citizen journalist means trust in social media is tanking.
So, what's left? Where do we look for authority and who do we trust? It turns out we still trust those venerable institutions; the newspapers, magazines and mainstream broadcast channels we grew up with and which still have authority.
We know that the mass media is policed by professional journalists and held to account - broadly speaking - by a code of ethics and press standards. We know that any news reported comes from the original source and can be compared against reports in other news outlets. We know the news that appears there has not been paid for and we also know it has had some level of legal scrutiny and complies with the editorial guidelines of that publishing house.
The contemporary marketer sees the authority and high ranking of an established media outlet and how content secured in such titles can influence its audience. Accessing the mass media requires specialist support, namely – you’ve guessed it - PR professionals. What’s more, in the age of transparent multichannel attribution, the true impact of PR coverage has never been easier to measure. Make no mistake, PR is back in vogue. It’s now up to our industry to prove our worth and make sure we’re never viewed as anything less than ‘essential’ ever again.