Is publicity via traditional media a waste of time?

It was once one of the perennial sounds of Australian suburbia. Alongside the weekly drone of a neighbour’s lawnmower on a Sunday morning was the daily thud of the local newspaper on the front driveway.

Alas, while the humble lawnmower maintains its place in the suburban pantheon of neighbourhood noise, the audible arrival of that wad of news, gossip and advertising is increasingly a thing of the past.

In early 2020 alone, News Corporation announced the closure of more than one hundred community and regional newspapers. Shortly after came the news that, after 85 years, one of the pillars of the Australian media scene, Australian Associated Press (AAP), was shedding 500 jobs.

While many of these mastheads have now been consolidated into less resourced news websites, there is no denying that the long-anticipated decline of traditional media platforms is accelerating.

This downward spiral has rightly seen many school communication practitioners question the value of using traditional media as an effective tool for publicity and brand promotion.

There is no question that the decline, especially in community newspapers, has diminished opportunities to get your messages out to the community.

But does it mean that seeking publicity through traditional media outlets like the local rag is now a waste of time?

I am not convinced that is the case, although I would reinforce the unquestionable need for every school to have a well-organised and strategic focus on its digital and social media activity. My endorsement comes with a warning though — success in the social media domain is not the grand panacea that some digital evangelists will claim.

My argument for not abandoning the use of traditional media is based on three primary observations, which I think the proponents of a sole focus on digitally based communication solutions tend to overlook.

First, while an increasing majority of the population consume their daily news via social channels like Facebook, the news they are reading is almost exclusively still being written by journalists employed by the shrinking traditional news outlets. The fact is that while Facebook and Google are now the dominant publishers of news in Australia, they invest virtually nothing in its generation. In other words, online news coverage still relies on interactions with your local reporter to get the story written in the first place. News stories don’t appear on social platforms by magic.

Secondly, and to some extent sadly for those of us who believe in the essential role of independent journalism, the decline in numbers of journalists employed to write content has a silver lining for those wanting to drive publicity via traditional PR. It is a simple consequence of the limited time and capacity for journalists to research and source stories on their own. I can recall a time as Director of Communications for a university, where my PR team managed to have the equivalent of four pages of our press releases published almost word for word in our local bugle. It is not so much that journalists are lazy; they simply don’t have the time to get out of the office and source stories of their own. Smart communications teams can take great advantage of this sad reality.

Thirdly is the curious fact that while the direct consumption of news content via a hard copy source like a local newspaper is diminishing, the indirect consumption of those stories is arguably bigger than ever. This is a somewhat ironic consequence of the rise of social media platforms. If I can illustrate with an example of nightly television news. One local television news channel I studied has seen the audience for its live 6pm news bulletin falling below 100,000 viewers a night — ten years ago it was double that. However, while the audience for its live news bulletin has declined dramatically, it now enjoys a Facebook audience of more than half a million. In my own practice, we are now seeing far more value for our clients in the sharing of news items originally published on a traditional platform. In fact, increasingly our tactic is to win ‘on-air’ coverage for our clients with the ultimate aim of gaining access to that news outlet’s extensive social following.

So, the next time someone tells you sending a media release to your local newspaper is a waste of time — you might want to suggest they think again.

John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector.

John Le Cras

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