Our co-founder Mark Lowe writes for PR Week about the weakness of traditional media, and what this means for PR
If one thing connects the big media stories of 2023, it’s the weakness of the media itself.
From corporate greenwashing, the blurring of editorial and advertising, travails at the BBC to the (alleged) ideological takeover of newsrooms, we see independent media, as traditionally defined, struggling to assert itself.
Anyone who works in a PR agency knows this. Direct contact with journalists is rarer than ever, and that’s not just because of technology – it’s because they are an endangered species.
The 2021 census for England and Wales, by the Office for National Statistics, suggests that PRs outnumber journalists by around 9,000. If you throw advertising and content marketing pros into the mix, the ratio is more like five to one.
It’s not news to say that non-paywalled media is struggling, but this year we’ve seen it enter a death spiral.
Free national newspaper websites are virtually unreadable due to excessive ads and the digital metrics, or ‘clicks’ that they sell are now widely viewed as meaningless. Even strong media brands like the Guardian continue to lose money, a remarkable feat if you consider that it simultaneously grew its readership and revenue this year.
As a result, some wily operators have stepped in to intermediate (and profit from) ‘earned’ content in a way that pushes the boundary between editorial and advertising to its limit.
Weak media can look like a gift to PR and in some ways, it is.
In consumer PR, it allows us to develop ‘hero’ campaigns, deployed through multiple channels and not reliant on traditional media coverage. In this social media and influencer dominated space a ‘big idea’ can win.
Corporate communicators are also increasingly able to bypass national newspapers, which don’t set the agenda like they once did, and reach stakeholders directly.
But as we enter 2024, a ‘year of elections’ when four billion people will head the polls, we should all hope that journalism finds a way to reassert itself and resist political and corporate interests.
The good news is that titles like the Economist, the FT and trade titles like PR Week, all of whom paywalled digital content early, look resurgent.
But if it repeats the mistakes of 2016, journalism really will change the world this year, and not for the better.