Where Journalists Are Marketing and Marketers are Selling Journalism

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By Adam Dvorin, Winning Strategies

You could say the tone of the day was set in the very first 10 minutes.

Here we were — a collection of communications professionals sitting in a conference room at CBS as part of a daylong tour of national media outlets organized by the Philadelphia Public Relations Association.

We were listening to Adam Sechrist, a booker at CBSN, describing his target market as young, technologically-savvy, news consumers.

“There were 3.8 million cord cutters in 2018 — and we want to be their national news provider of choice,” Sechrist said. “Our audience tends to skew a little younger — under 34. And they want their news a little more direct, without as much opinion as cable news stations.”

If you didn’t know — and many of us did not — CBSN is a streaming news channel that one can watch without needing a cable subscription. The news presentation is a bit more traditional — information without the bombastic tone that caused one Philadelphia TV anchor to remark that cable news had become a “Hollywood Squares of Hate” during a recent panel on which I served.

Mostly, CBSN isn’t trying to win audience share from a competitor. The network saw a whole new market — in this case, cord cutters — and raced to create a product that catered to this community.

Listening to Sechrist talk, I was struck by how much he sounded like a marketer — or at least a journalist with strong marketing sensibilities. And, as our group snapped photos and prepared to travel to our next stop, I couldn’t help but think that we, as as media relations professionals, need to strategize in a similar manner if we want our clients to earn as much coverage as possible.

Audience targeting increasingly matters in this post-mass media world. If you want to secure earned media coverage, then pitches need to be more customized and individualized than ever before. That much is crystal clear.

For example, later in the day, we paid a visit to Bloomberg and heard New York bureau chief Lauren Berry explain that she considers “business leaders in New York” to be her target reader. If a story resonates at Goldman Sachs, it likely has a home on one of Bloomberg’s platforms — TV, radio, traditional wire or the professional-based wire that few outside the financial industry ever get to see.

Usually when PPRA members come to New York, we hear advice that doesn’t sound that much different than what we might hear at our regular media panels. Spell the contact’s name correctly. Know about the outlet you’re pitching — don’t offer a cooking segment to NBC Nightly News, for instance. Journalists venting a set of time-tested PR pet peeves.

But this time, I saw a noticeable shift in the tenor of our talks with media decision makers. We were going to a higher level! We heard about journalists making editorial decisions more strategically considering their outlet’s target reader, listener or viewer much more than before.

One of our hosts — The New York Times — even strategized an entire array of audio products to meet this shifting consumer demand.

Samantha Henig, the editorial director of audio at The Times, transitioned from printed word editorial positions to start a division that now boasts one of the most popular shows in all of podcasting, The Daily.

Henig wrote the business plan, hired a 25-person production team and began overseeing the team that puts out The Daily and other Times podcasts.

Indeed, in a world where new podcasts pop up seemingly overnight, The Daily stands apart because of its intricate production, concise show length of 25 minutes or less (“the time of most people’s commutes,” says Henig) and involvement of Times reporters.

The Daily, explained New York Times Chief Marketing Officer David Rubin, fits into the Times’ overall branding premise of “Truth.”

The “Truth” campaign, says the Medium, has helped the New York Times surpass two million digital subscriptions (and inspired a clothing products that have been worn by celebrities such as Justin Timberlake).

Rubin, who previously worked for Unilever and joked about “being the man who unleashed Axe body spray on the world,” felt an image-centric campaign would work effectively for a media company in a way that a price-based campaign would not (example: 12 weeks of news for $25!).

So far, of course, he is correct — something that underscores the irony of a marketer positioning journalism as a consumer commodity. Meanwhile, journalists themselves are analyzing their audiences and using marketing sensibilities to develop news products that resonate with their targets.

Journalists often speak of the division between church and state. And, while that still exists, PPRA’s day in New York might suggest that marketing pros and journalists are thinking more similarly these days — something that is not likely to change anytime soon.

Adam Dvorin is Media Relations Director of New Jersey-based Winning Strategies Communications and the immediate past president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Association.

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