The Weird Wired World

Posted in: Featured | By: | March 26, 2009

“If you waste your time a talkin’ to the people who don’t listen to the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear? And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about are things they could be changin’ who do you think’s gonna care?” – Kristofferson

In recent weeks, I’ve been involved in conversations with journalists, educators, professors, and a few business people about the topics of reporting and public relations. Journalism as a business isn’t the only endeavor facing transformational challenges as we move closer to what the futurists call Web 3.0, which is essentially universal access and complete portability of all tools. There are an almost uncountable number of big brains trying to figure out a model for journalism to earn revenues and provide a value. Nobody has defined the new parameters.

The challenges are hardly any different for PR. Everyone dabbling in social media is convinced they have found the methodologies for successful public relations but they don’t appear to be speaking with great exactitude. Tools like Twitter and Facebook and every other widget you can download to your business web site or Word Press page certainly simplifies sending out a message. Unfortunately, there are millions of others with blogs and companies that are also dispatching messages. The ether is awash with digital yarns and marketing language and superlative claims by startups.

But who in the hell is listening?

Remember Earth 1.0 before the net? There were a limited number of TV and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and vertical industry publications to hear your stories. If you were a business, even a small one, you either hired an agency to conduct an outreach or you simply distributed your news release directly to the potential publisher yourself or by hiring a PR wire distribution service. If the media liked what they read, you might get a phone call or simply be referred to in a larger report. The luckier ones got to tell their stories in detail and become the focus of a specific article.

Yes, this is a bit of a simplification but it speaks to the way PR functioned not that many years in the past. As the web has matured, the number of technological communications tools has proliferated to the point where many companies can’t say with confidence what is working for their image and bottom line. A business blog can be automatically alerted on a Twitter account and then the link can be added to a company’s Facebook page and several people might “Digg” the article but where does that take the company? The goal of all of these services is, at a minimum, to drive traffic to the company’s web site and increase awareness, just as it is for all PR. Unless, however, you are a Fortune 100 brand or a prominent figure in business or entertainment, is it realistic to expect more than a few hundred people to be aware of your messages when every other entity on the web is armed with the same axe?

Nobody knows how many businesses exist in the US and beyond that are beginning to use social media to communicate. We can certainly surmise that there are enough to clutter the net with what I’d call dark noise, digital information that is so prolific it can suck even the most effective of messages into a meaningless void. We are all equal in the weird, wired world because, regardless of the size of our business or our budget, we can get cheap tools to reach out to readers and potential customers. If, however, everyone is reaching out how does the audience know which hand to grab? A great story has always been able to find an audience but now we have more great stories and more audiences. How are the connections made?

The answer might be for companies to stop trying to reach too far and simply build their own networks. Use all of the popular tools to begin communicating in different ways with people who are already your customers and clients and friends and associates. Keep them engaged and interested and they will eventually engage and interest others and the network will grow. This takes time and dedication and good messaging to retain the attention of people who already know you and your company. Nonetheless, it seems much more realistic of an approach than the traditional news release outreach. Effective PR and journalism are both simply a form of good story telling. The task is to round up people to get them to sit by the campfire in a world where the campfire sometimes feels like it’s going out. Talk to people who are likely to listen and use social media tools to start the conversation.

I’ve tried the PR web and wire services and I’ve seen neither appreciable impact in Search Engine Optimization nor any noticeable increase in brand awareness for companies. There is something counter-intuitive about paying almost $400 to have a news release posted to a web site when I can post it to my company’s page for free and get essentially the same SEO results and then check effectiveness with free Google Analytics.

The issues for journalism are equally profound. The New York Times just laid off another 100 people in their business division and had to borrow $200 million from Mexican investor Carlos Slim just to service debt. The company is renting out parts of its building, requiring 5% pay cuts, and many don’t believe the Times-owned Boston Globe will last till the end of the year. There is almost no point in naming all of the print outlets that are firing people and ending publications. The question no one seems to be able to answer is what will be the replacement for traditional sources of information. Subscription services have worked in niche markets of interest but they offer limited revenue for investors. Why am I going to pay for a political newsletter or web site when I can go to Politico get a serious fix for free? The newsletter is going to have to deliver really good insider material before I give them my credit card number and even if they do that well there is still a limited number of people who will pay.

Quality information and news has been devalued by the internet. There is just too much out there and too much is free and that is exactly what much of it is worth. But the dark noise has killed newspapers. Nobody doubts that newspapers are going to disappear. And nobody knows what will fill the void.

And nobody doubts that it is a void that needs to be filled.

1 Comment for this entry:

  • Kristen Twedt

    “Effective PR and journalism are both simply a form of good story telling.”

    I’ll take a great photo with a correctly spelled cutline any day over paid advertising because of that very reason. It tells the story, and people remember.

    Another insightful and satisfying read, Jim.

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