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Five reasons why Digital PR needs to be fundamental to your PR/Communications work in a post COVID-19 world

Wednesday 29, Apr 2020

By Charlene White


The world has changed thanks to COVID-19...and so has PR and Communications.

If someone had told me in January that more than two-thirds of the world’s population would pull the plug on their economies and be in some form of self-isolation or lock-down scenario by March, I would have thought they were bonkers!

We are truly living through unprecedented times which will redefine our generation and the way many people live their lives moving forward.

This also has a significant impact on the way we, as PR/Communications professionals, pitch, plan, execute, measure and justify our work now, and in the future.

But this change is not ‘new’ news – I’ve been talking about how PR and Communications has evolved significantly for several years now. 

Digital had already changed our game and the way our audiences behave and consume information pre-lockdown. COVID-19 has just accelerated things at a mind-blowing rate of knots even further.

If you’re honest, many of you would have already sensed the change prior to this extraordinary event. Maybe you were finding it tougher to work with media, getting diminishing returns or struggling to prove your impact - but were just too busy ‘doing the doing’ or unsure about what to do about it. 

I know this is the case for many Comms people I work with in my Digital PR coaching business as they have told me so during their training.

The fact is, our Communications landscape and audiences’ needs are now very different. In fact, they’re beyond recognition from even five years ago. So it’s imperative we now go wider with our work – or risk being left behind or worse…becoming irrelevant as an industry.

Why?  There’s five key reasons:


1. People’s reliance on digital has exploded

Let’s face it – digital has changed the way we now largely live, work, communicate, make decisions and buy almost anything.

And by the way, when I use the word digital – I don’t just mean social media. It’s bigger than that. 

Over half the world’s population are online, they’re highly connected and now fully in control of where and who they get their information from. 

We all have the power to find our own tribes online and choose who to trust based on our own research. The best authentic story or recommendation wins. 

This has meant our audiences have never been less engaged with traditional PR and Marketing. They don’t want to be talked at or sold to with old-school PR techniques anymore. What they do want is quality, authentic communication that provides value and earns their trust.

And they’re using multiple channels, not just media, on their own terms to get it. 

Again, this is not new - it’s just COVID-19 has amplified this and increased people’s reliance on digital more than ever before.  

As a result, entire businesses have had to reinvent themselves online and it has created new behaviors and additional expectations from our audiences. 

In the past few months alone, we’ve also found new ways to work, keep in touch with friends and family, school our children and pretty much everything else in between that we used to do manually – all now at a touch of a button. 

I’m not saying things will stay this way forever. It’s likely we will all go back to our old lives in some form - but it will be a version 2.0 of it where digital will sit at the center of everything. 

This has a massive impact on the way we plan our PR work, communicate and influence our audiences in the future.

It now requires us to go wider with our work. 

We are, by nature, authentic story tellers that build trust and reputation for our clients/brands based on providing value to our audiences. 

What we need to do now is take advantage of the array of new digital tools, channels and opportunities now available to us to go wider with our work. 

In fact, we need to go wider with our work than ever before to ensure we better engage our target audiences and create real measurable results.


2. Media are in trouble

Unless you’ve been living in complete isolation over the last few months, you will have seen that our beloved media are in a desperate fight for survival right now. 

While it’s completely devastating for our industry too, given media have always been the core channel we have relied on to tell our stories, keeping all of our eggs in one basket is no longer a viable option (something I have been saying for some time already!)

At a time when audience numbers for mainstream media are at an all-time high (i.e. some media audiences have more than doubled over the past couple of months as they tune in to get the latest information on the COVID-19 situation), revenues are currently at an all-time low given advertising dollars have been pulled and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. 

Brands are cautious about what and how they communicate right now – which may continue through to the end of the year as we all figure out the impact of this event.

This has mortally wounded some titles who were already teetering on the brink.

Entire media organisations have gone out of business. Take the sudden announcement on April 2 that Bauer Media NZ were shutting down immediately – less than a week into New Zealand’s COVID-19 level 4 shut-down. 

In Australia, at a time when the top 10 online news publications have experienced record audience numbers, advertising revenues have plummeted. Publications are hurting, which is a double blow given they were already losing out to online and social media channels.

Global titles, which people have known and loved for years, have disappeared virtually overnight or have either been shuttered, journalists furloughed or entire teams left with no choice but to take a significant pay cut. 

We do not know where this will go.

Forbes have even been running a specific update page on their site to keep track of all the media organisations in the US that have made drastic cuts to its operations and staff in the past few months. 

One of the largest publishers in the US – Gannett (which owns USA Today amongst other titles) have furloughed workers at over 100 newspapers across the US. Other publications such as the Financial Times, Fortune and the Guardian Media Group have also taken significant measures.

These truly are uncertain times. 

Add to that the stigma of ‘fake news’ and the belittling of journalists, particularly since the current leader of the ‘Free World’ took office, which has made our work even more challenging.

Things are changing at a rapid rate and we must go wider with our work or risk becoming irrelevant as an industry too.

I’m not saying abandon media altogether as they still have a key role to play in Digital PR. But it involves leveraging them differently.


3. People are choosing other channels

A recent Forbes survey found that:

 “50% of internet users surveyed said that they heard about the latest news via social media before ever hearing about it on a news station.

Many internet users said they will see the breaking stories on their feed and then go to the news sites to learn more.

The survey also found a 57 percent increase in traffic to news sites referred from social media.”

Again, people’s behaviors and preferences for where they get their information from are changing and the thing is, all of this is now directly measurable thanks to digital.

As a consequence, the Australian Government recently moved to ensure media were compensated by the likes of Google and Facebook when using stories on their channels sourced from mainstream media.

While it’s a good move, it will be interesting to see if the online juggernauts will now change their algorithms to exclude direct feeds from news media now they have to pay for it. Maybe they will start their own…who knows.

What I found interesting is, at the same time as the Australian Government’s announcement, our beloved NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was questioned on the demise of the media. She was asked why her Government was spending money to promote COVID-19 lock-down measures on Facebook and Google instead of mainstream media.

Her answer: “Because that’s where the people are.”

And she is right.


4. The demise of media directly impacts the PR/Communications industry

Forgive me if this sounds insensitive but the public commentary around the current state and survival of our media industry also has a direct impact on our industry.

Why? 

Because every day I still come across PR/Comms agencies and in-house Comms teams who insist their clients or executives are still predominantly after column inches and use that as a key marker for their success.

It beats me why this is still happening when we have access to so many other channels and tools to reach our audiences and measure our impact.

So here’s the thing…if we are only known and seen for our work with the media, where does that leave us as the media industry shrinks and there continues  to be public commentary around its demise?

I’ve been saying this for several years already and I’ll say it again, we can no longer keep all of our eggs in one basket. 

We now need to stand up and educate our clients and exec’s about the value of our work and how it involves more than just mainstream media and column inches. 

It’s an exciting time for us as we have the opportunity to expand our capabilities to ensure the survival of our industry.

While I believe media will still play a key role in our society in the future given it helps ensure objectivity and accountability, their industry will likely look quite different in the years to come. 

But we can’t just sit around and wait to see what will happen or for our industry to be tarnished with the same ‘dying industry’ brush either.

We can no longer just be seen as media story brokers – we are more than that. But we need to go wider with our work and expand our digital skills and expertise to remain relevant in these changing times.

This is only possible with Digital PR.


5. Marketers and SEO’s are becoming story-tellers and have been smarter at embracing new digital channels and techniques than us

It’s an exciting time for PR pro’s as there are so many new digital tools, techniques and processes we can now incorporate into our work that makes us better as practitioners and achieves more measurable results.
 
Yet our industry has been relatively slow at embracing this new technology and stretching ourselves beyond traditional PR to develop our Digital PR skills.
 
At the same time, Marketers and SEO pro’s have realised the value of our craft, especially if adapted to digital, and are incorporating Digital PR, authentic story-telling into their work. They are also pitching directly to media now too.

This has resulted in more content being generated in the last few years than in 
almost the entire history of mankind. In turn, this has also created more competition for editor’s interest, column inches and a share of our audiences’ attention.

Everyone from Content and Digital Marketers, SEO pro’s, entrepreneurs and influencers are now pitching to media alongside us. And they converging on newsrooms at a time when media have limited resources and diminishing revenues. 

So how do we navigate these changing times, and imminent recession, to ensure we remain indispensable to our clients, executives or brands? 

ANSWER: By developing a more sophisticated Digital PR proposition.


The Digital PR solution

The beauty of Digital PR is that it takes the guesswork out of our work, allows us to better target our audiences and puts an end to random acts of content that have typically gone nowhere in the past.

Digital PR also lets us take control of our story-telling and who gets to see it. 

Traditionally PR professionals have only ever played in the media and (most likely organic) social media space. But this is what I call short-term ‘Browse’ mode.

It’s basically operating on a ‘hope’ strategy. What we have been doing for years is pitching unique angles to editors in the hope that they like it, which sometimes never ends up the story you hoped for. 

Then you’re relying on someone within your target market to be on the right media channel at the right time to see your story or social post and, most importantly, stop their scroll. They’re not expecting you in their feeds or looking for what you have to offer or say, yet we’re ‘hoping’ they will see us. 

Then, we typically don’t even properly measure what they do with your content beyond “impressions” afterwards.

To me – that’s a crazy strategy in today’s busy world when so much information is coming at people at any one time.

What we now need to do is also take our work wider and use data and new digital tools (a lot of them are for free) to firstly understand our audiences, what they want and where they are hanging out before even starting to develop our PR plans.

Secondly, we must also stretch ourselves to go wider and tap into a massive media channel that most comms people have never worked with before - ‘Search’


Why is ‘Search’ fundamental to Digital PR?

Because over 80% of people turn to ‘Search’ to research almost anything related to people, products, brands, services, places – you name it and people have searched for it.

And the number one channel they use is Google. It is the largest, most trusted media organisation in the world according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

People trust what is delivered up on the front page of search for any term is the best possible results for that topic. Yet Comms/PR people have largely left this channel untapped.

Appearing on the front page of Google doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes work and focus. But with more than 5.6 billion search queries carried out on Google every day, why wouldn’t we include it as part of our channel mix? 

If we don’t, we are missing serious opportunities with qualified audiences who are searching for something specifically related to your brand or client’s business.

As Comms/PR people, we can affect what is delivered up on those pages by doing what we have always done i.e. create quality, authentic content but with a few tweaks adapted with Digital PR.

Communications and PR people have largely left this channel alone – yet Marketers and SEO pro’s have been all over this for years and are using media and organic content to drive traffic off Search to gain more measurable results for their brand.

We can no longer ignore this channel as part of our work or leave it for someone else to do. Our industry’s survival depends on us going wider with our work and leveraging, not only an integrated channel approach, but also incorporating data, new digital tools and better measurement metrics to provide value to our audiences, clients or brands.

We can easily do this – we just have to expand our Digital PR skills.

Column inches, likes, sentiment and impressions no longer cut it. We now need to show the true value of our work beyond traditional PR metrics.

Digital PR helps you do this.

There’s no denying these are truly challenging times right now. But I’m such a believer in finding opportunities in the face of adversity.

Digital PR can help you pivot, expand your skills and show the true value of your work. If you can upskill yourself, and fast, you will be ahead of the curve and be able to lead the next generation of Digital Comms pro’s. It’s entirely up to you. 

This is our time where we get to decide how our story goes. 

It’s up to us as Comms people to change how we manage, create and build the reputation of our brand/clients in our new digital world in order to safeguard the future of our craft. 

Digital PR provides us with a massive opportunity to learn new skills and evolve our craft – we just have to take it!


About Charlene White

Charlene White is a Digital PR coach and strategist who teaches Communications professionals the art and science of Digital PR. She is a trainer for the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand and Auckland University of Technology as well as Founder of her own Digital PR coaching business, DigiPR.