Why the art of media relations is in the title


When I worked at the BBC, the Corporation's Director of Nations & Regions, Pat Loughrey, used to talk about what he called 'air-conditioned journalism'. As the man ultimately responsible for the editorial performance of the most local parts of the BBC - and therefore those closest both geographically and culturally to the people who paid the Licence Fee - Pat perhaps cared even more about the integrity of BBC journalism than did the rest of us.

Air-conditioned journalism, by Pat's definition, is the gathering of news by sitting and looking at a screen all day. 

It’s wholly the wrong way to approach newsgathering, of course, because news stories, like all stories, are almost always about people (and, therefore, emotions). You can’t really grasp the soul or essence of someone’s story if you haven’t seen the whites of their eyes. 

And, more dangerous still, if all you’re doing all day is regurgitating someone else’s news, you are simply destined to always be a composite of other journalists – repeating their mistakes and never finding your own voice.

But modern economics posed a thorny problem in reversing the trend of air-conditioned journalism: as successive drives for efficiencies systematically expunged any apparent over-resourcing from BBC newsrooms - and this, somewhat predictably, impacted adversely on the number of reporters who occupied them - so the range and quality of original journalism was also quietly eroded.

It wasn't long before those of us responsible for the day to day running of the flotilla of local radio stations and regional television news services that made up the BBC's news fleet outside London found ourselves living in a new reality of shrinking budgets, fewer staff and, if anything, increasing amounts of airtime to fill with news content.

As David Clayton, the Managing Editor at BBC Radio Norfolk observed during one management meeting, life had become a daily struggle to cover the double bed of programming with the single duvet of resources.

Inevitably, the quality of journalism faltered because there was no other choice. We no longer had the flexibility to be able to do news the old-fashioned way and send our reporters onto the streets to cultivate and work contacts within local politics, emergency services, health providers and community action groups.

As a result, and whether we cared to admit it or not, our journalism became increasingly derivative, often a reinvention or re-imagining of something already in the public domain. What saved us in many cases was the unerring knack we had for being tremendously creative in the way we chose to tell our stories - but that's a different blog for a different day. 

Which brings us to media relations, because it seems to me that the same malaise exists on the other side of the media fence.

Increasingly, toward the end of my time with the BBC, I found the media officers with whom I came into contact were graduates of some 'Media & Comms' degree course. Precious few had actually worked in the media and too many clearly had no understanding of how the media - and particularly the news media - operates. 

Although the best media relations managers I've come across are those who've worked in the media themselves, I'm not suggesting for a moment that you can't be very successful in media relations without having worked the news coal-face.

My point, rather, is that just as reporters no longer seem to get out and build a relationship with the people who could be their best sources of news, so I've noticed a trend for organisations to indulge in air-conditioned media relations.

Relationships built on human interaction will always yield more and be stronger than those that are managed remotely. Email and social media may be seen as a more expedient way of delivering prospects to news channels, but they aren't necessarily the most lucrative unless they have a human element to them.

Knowing exactly what the media is hungry for - in good times and bad - is a primary key to successful media management. And just like the art of original reporting, I'd argue, that isn't something learned at a computer screen.



The Code of Content

Now that social media has made publishers and broadcasters of all of us, we find ourselves swamped by more 'content' than we know what to do with. And while that's opened up a vast landscape of opportunity - particularly for those of us practicing the dark art of content marketing - it's not always an existence of milk and honey.

That's due, in large part, to the fact that the majority of organisations not already rooted in content creation and curation simply don't understand - and in many cases don't want to understand - the concepts that help to differentiate between the useful and the useless.

 Publishers all we may be, but creating useless content (or, at least, content that is less useful) for the sake of being seen to create content risks damaging, rather than enhancing, your brand.

Yet cracking the code to creating content that invigorates and inspires your intended audience shouldn't require the services of Alan Turing. To labour that crypto-analogy a little, I'd argue that identifying useful content is based on completing a set of simple algorithms.

But what do we mean by useful? Predictably, there isn't a dead simple answer to what is, on the face of it, a dead simple question. You'd certainly expect useful content to be relevant to whoever's consuming it. And you'd certainly expect it to be timely. Beyond that, though, it also depends to a certain extent on where we're putting it.

The first sequence in the content algorithm, then, is who makes up my consumer base?

This isn't always as easy to pin down as it might first appear because when it comes to a piece of content, our consumers aren't necessarily always our customers. They may be brand or product advocates, suppliers, media outlets, competitors or potential investors.

"Knowing why your audience comes to you in the first place is the second step in breaking the content code for your business or enterprise"

"Knowing why your audience comes to you in the first place is the second step in breaking the content code for your business or enterprise"

If we can't, don't or won't answer the 'who' question right off the bat, we increase the risk of jeopardising our chances of achieving the outcomes we want.

I don't subscribe to Viz magazine because I'm looking for serious analysis of what post-Brexit Britain might look like. I subscribe because it indulges the eternal student in me, offering me a six-weekly dose of puerility and a brief, but very welcome, distraction from the more serious grown-up business of earning a living and raising children.

Knowing why your audience comes to you in the first place is the second step in breaking the content code for your business or enterprise - if we don't know why they've come, how can we possibly give them what they want? And if that all sounds a bit 'no-shit-Sherlock', that's because it is. Yet daily examples of getting this fundamental step spectacularly wrong abound.

Andrex, the toilet tissue manufacturer, is responsible for one of the most celebrated examples of failing to understand what its audience wanted from them.

It's "Scrunch or Fold" campaign was certainly funny (and, in equal measure, squirm-inducingly uncomfortable), but not in a good way. Andrex, in the pursuit of content it presumably wanted to be engaging, either didn't know or simply forgot to answer the basic, 'who is my audience and what do they want?' questions.

Had it done so, it might quickly have concluded that one of the last things people really want to discuss publicly is how they wipe their bum.

Our customers want content that helps them to make a purchasing decision - hopefully a decision that ends with them putting their money into our till. Other consumers want other things. Suppliers want to know about scale and budgets and growth. Investors want to know about long-term financial viability and ROI. The media wants to know about innovation and success and your unique story. And so it goes on.

Identifying why a consumer will engage with our content is a critical step in ensuring that content is useful. And if it's useful, people will engage with it. To misquote the film Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come - but only if it's fit for purpose. 

If Ray Kinsella, the films hero, had built an ice rink instead of a baseball diamond, I'm pretty sure the Chicago White Sox wouldn't have bothered going to Iowa. He might have got the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey team instead - but then that wasn't who he wanted. Enough with the Kevin Costner metaphor.

The third algorithm is linked to the 'why' question and it's about legacy. More specifically, what do I want the audience to do with this piece of content?

There are many different possible endgames for the stuff we put in front of our audiences. We use content to persuade people to buy, to share, to promote, to build approval, to take action, to learn, to understand. And it's across that spectrum of 'takeaways' that we start to build brand awareness, loyalty and share of voice.

If we understand who our audience is, why they engage with our content and what we want them to do as a result, then we're better-equipped to tackle the fourth and final algorithm.

We've all got the friend who uses Facebook like email, posting backwards and forwards, apparently interminably, as they struggle to meet up for a coffee in Starbucks. 'I can't do 11, how about 11.30'? '11.30's no good - 10.30 better for me as I have to go to Sainsbury's before lunch'. The sort of thing that has you reaching for the 'Unfollow' drop-down.

And the mate who insists on sending texts that seem to dwarf War And Peace in sheer wordage.

"Linking to video via Twitter might make us feel funky and tech-savvy, but will it hook our core audience of followers?

"Linking to video via Twitter might make us feel funky and tech-savvy, but will it hook our core audience of followers?

Knowing how our audience wants to consume our content is almost as important as knowing who that audience is to start with.

Linking to video via Twitter might make us feel funky and tech-savvy, but will it hook our core audience of followers? And if that core audience is engaging with it, is it then working as hard as it can for us?

So in distribution terms, we need to be able to identify where the intended audience for any single piece of content is living. A lot of that has to do with demographics - and having good data might mean spending some money to buy it.

As a general rule of thumb, traditional older audiences incline to traditional media (print and broadcast, for example) while younger tech-aware audiences are more digitally-immersed. But inevitably, it's more complex than that and the reality is more Venn-like.

If you're selling lipstick to teenagers, then does pre-roll film on Zoella's vlog work better for you than a full page display ad in Girl's Life mag? If you're selling cruises to people aged 70+, then YouTube and Facebook are probably not the right platform.

In the end, as Jonathan Perelman, at the time with Buzzfeed, observed: content may be king, but distribution is queen - and she wears the pants.