The Heat Is On

A few weeks ago, the San Francisco Bay Area sizzled under record-setting hot temperatures. San Francisco, notorious for its summers of cold and fog, blistered in 103-degree heat the hottest temperature ever recorded in San Francisco history. Pocket protectors melted in Silicon Valley when San Jose reached a wilting 108 degrees.

Because weather is mild year round, the local news media turn any aberrations into major news events. One local channel reported no less than 23 minutes worth of weather-related stories. From sunstroke prevention tips to the kids who’d opened street fire hydrants, the hot weather was the only news in town.

That same day, the leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time since the two countries have been at war. Syrian president Hafez Assad was buried. And myriad other important things were happening near and far. But since weather-related stories are easy and don’t require broadcast reporters to pronounce foreign leaders’ names, we got half an hour of weather.

So the news media shouldn’t be surprised by the recent study published by the Pew Research Center that people are losing interest in television news in favor of the Internet. The study shows that fewer people are following the news and will pay attention to national news “only when something important is happening.” This basically means that their definition of what’s important is different from what the news directors think is important.

The report goes on to say that one in three Americans go online at least once a week for their news, and the number of daily Internet news readers has more than doubled in the last year. Beat-specific news that is, news about a particular topic, or beat is suffering the most. Nearly anyone who follows business or stock market news goes to the Internet rather than traditional broadcasters for their news fix.

The Good News and the Bad News

The good news is that some media relations people are slightly vindicated. How many of us have screamed at the TV, “That’s a NON-news story!!” It seems many other viewers were thinking the same thing. The big difference now is that there are so many alternatives; there’s no time to scream. Because every time someone clicks the remote in favor of online news, it symbolizes potential PR audiences whose attention we no longer have!

What this means is that the broadcasters, particularly local broadcasters, had better evaluate how they deliver the news and what role their broadcast plays against them online. When Emily worked in a television newsroom, the anchor shocked her when she said that their 10 o’clock broadcast was just a headline service to get people interested in what was coming up in the next morning’s newspaper. (Of course, it was a vicious cycle because TV news assignment editors will scan the morning newspaper looking for story ideas).

What this also means is that those public relations practitioners who have not yet embraced the online media as legitimate targets for story placement are missing the most desirable audiences. And before they know it, they will be irrelevant in the world of public relations and strategic communications. We’re not talking about the technology public relations firms they got it a long time ago; therefore, they’re excused from this discussion. We’re talking about the public relations firms that focus on non-technology clients. (Yes, amazingly, they do exist!)

It may sound obvious here to those who are seasoned PR professionals, but now more than ever, targeting the message is the most critical aspect of communications. Users are interested only in what interests them: very narrow topics that affect their lives.

Now before you fire off some email flame (we get them every time we give basic PR strategies like this), take note of the recent flurry of anti-PR articles that have appeared in The Industry Standard, Red Herring and MSNBC. We’re not making this up! Reporters are obviously still getting pitched irrelevant and half-baked story ideas by fresh-out-of-college PR newbies who seem to be working in sweat-shop-like phone banks.

Yes, But What About ME?

Public relations professionals are now finally forced to answer the question, “So what?” Public relations professionals, Emily included, used to gloat about the fact that PR kept its eye on the big picture while the marketing cronies down the hall were just worried about the next sale. PR was concerned with the overall image of the company, the broader relationships with key constituents, the warm fuzzies in the community.

It’s an attitude that PR can no longer afford. Granted, the overall image of a company is still critical to its success. But not to the exclusion of other objectives, such as targeted communications to specific audiences.

So while reporters and PR professionals go on bickering with each other about whether PR people need reporters anymore to reach their audience, or whether PR people are still just flacks who don’t understand the news business our much-coveted audience has gotten up and left the room.

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