Friday, July 24, 2009

Public Relations in the Internet Age

Part 6 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

In 2005 a dramatic development took place in the history of news service. Garrett Graff, a 23-year-old blogger for Media Bistro’s “Fishbowl DC” was granted a daily pass to be part of the White House Press Corps. One White House spokesman admitted that he had never heard of a blogger being given such a prominent place in the media world before.

As we all know, the past five to ten years has been tough on the newspaper industry. Even before Graff entered the White House for press conferences, newspaper readership was declining with the growing popularity of the internet.

In December last year, the Pew Research Center found that - for the first time - more Americans were getting their news from the internet than newspapers. Young people were driving this transition, with 59% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 reading news online - an incredible 25% jump since September 2007.

What does this mean for political campaigns?

Little in the blogosphere is such a popular topic as politics (heck, you’re reading a political blog right now). And as blogs continue to grow in relevance, many PR firms - as well as campaigns - are beginning to rethink how they reach out to information providers.

From an article on MediaShift, which tracks the online news revolution:

[Adam] Ritchie [who works in brand promotion] explained that in the old PR world, the agency would simply place the news in traditional outlets and be done with it. But with the new model, once you've placed the story, you've opened a new phase of work -- and that's when the social media part begins. You then take that news story from a trusted outlet and begin trying to spread it into the blogosphere and social news sites, drawing more eyeballs to it than the publication's typical audience.

But how do they approach these bloggers and social media users? Almost everyone I spoke to for this piece immediately agreed that most bloggers think very differently than traditional journalists; they tend to shy away from the old methods that PR people have in the past used to engage reporters. Ritchie said that he hasn't sent out a press release in years, going so far as to say, "I don't believe in press releases."

"A lot of blogs will pick up a press release, and it's true that press releases have found new life among indie bloggers that are hungry for content," he said. "But quality writers for quality blogs aren't going to regurgitate a press release, and you're not winning in the long run by sending the press release to small and independent bloggers because you're not building personal relationships by carpet bombing them. We want to be on a personal basis with them, and sending them a press release isn't going to accomplish much for the next time you want to approach them."

Ritchie said that he sends a personal note with a "buffet of options" for the blogger -- whether it's a YouTube clip, a mainstream press article, or even an original scoop -- so that he or she can choose how to engage the story.

Christine Perkett, president and founder of PerkettPR, said that bloggers often differ from journalists in that they aren't writing about these subjects as a full-time job, meaning they will approach the story differently than would a reporter…

…One thing that PR professionals have found within social media is a tendency for badly run campaigns to backfire. If a journalist receives a bad pitch or poorly targeted press release, he'll often just ignore it. But it's not uncommon for a blogger to publish the press release or email on his blog, ridiculing the person or agency that sent it to him.

While campaigns should adopt similar strategies and precautions, it is important to remember that the blogosphere is still in its early years, and changes are still to come in the realm of citizen journalism. As another article from MediaShift points out “[There has been a] trend in recent years of newspapers trying to team up with local bloggers.”

Los Angeles Times blog editor Tony Pierce says:

"For the most part, this whole citizen journalism concept is fine for about three or four people per town, but that's about it," he said. "And most of those people are not journalists for a reason. Either they're crappy writers or they're crazy, which makes for sometimes interesting blog posts, but is that something that a major newspaper would link to?

… I love blogs more than any other person -- but I'll be the first to tell you that most of them are crappy. Which isn't to say that individual posts can't be great, and I think that's where newspapers should focus."

Such a system of online newspaper sources linking to local-oriented blog posts is tricky - it’s uncharted waters for campaigns to navigate effectively. But some clues as to how to develop a clever strategy can be seen in the way campaigning is done now.

According to political scientist Brian Schaffner, “One reason that citizens turn to the local news more often [than national news] is that they tend to be interested in news that directly affects their lives.” Referring to a 2002 Pew study that found local television news to still be the most popular form of media consumption (and a 2008 Pew study finds it continues to be) Schaffner argues that campaigns are smart to target local communities in speeches and message because it gets more airtime on local news than national news and is more relevant to voters.

“Campaign events often have significance to local communities that would be lost on national news outlets. For example, during the second debate of the 2000 presidential campaign, George Bush and Al Gore briefly discussed the tragic school shootings that occurred in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. This discussion was almost completely ignored by the national news programs, but each television station…in Denver discussed that portion of the debate on their news programs…the news was much more important for citizens in Denver who were still dealing with the repercussions of the tragedy.”

As blogs become more and more focused on local issues with the help of the professional news industry, campaigns can use the same tactics of message on local issues and win coverage.

Beyond this, campaigns are already reaching out to bloggers in personalized ways to get positive coverage and a leg up in the online news age - another one of the lasting legacies of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. And more innovations for 21st Century PR are sure to come as campaigns evolve and Americans leave the ink print behind.

Come back Tuesday for Part 7: 21st Century Polling!

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