There's been a lot of change happening in the world of communications, much of it is affecting two issues near and dear to my heart:
1. My client's thought leadership
2. The swiftly-evolving landscape of marketing, and the expansion of paid content.
Last week had some serendipity happening, in that several incidents converged and prodded me to give some thought to our evolving communications marketplace, and the changing roles of Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned Media*. Here's the outcome:
Three Things Happened
1. Top Media Access for Almost No Money
Yet again, someone called and wanted to be featured in the New York Times for a grand total investment of $500. I responded in my usual fashion; thanking them politely for contacting me, sending on some free DIY reading materials, then hanging up and having a small fit. Again.
2. Yet, Someone is Doing This
A number of someones, apparently, as a partner of mine mentioned one of several companies that provide "cooked to order" articles in top publications, for the cost of most New York agency's lunch meetings. While this has been part of the landscape for quite some time, I'm seeing a proliferation tipping point.
3. I had my Bias Surgically Removed
By this, I meant I stepped back and took a hard look at the industry and its changes. I need to stop automatically dismissing, and start thinking about this here-to-stay member of the marketing ecosystem.
Here is What I Saw, This is What I Think
Yes, indeed, the change in access to top publications has opened dramatically. Content networks, and agencies focused on providing client-vetted articles to "top outlets" has proliferated, and this is not anything new.
It is part of the very democratic ecosystem that allows enterprises and thought leaders to get their messages out in the marketplace in a controlled manner. From dialogue across social platforms, to paid-message positioning and paid amplification, the enterprise is now also the gatekeeper. This is an excellent thing, as elbow grease and budget can now allow companies and their founders to drive their market dialogue.
The Slippery Slope Downside: Third Person Credibility
There is a caveat however; institutions, conventions, media and markets are in many ways like a luxury car or fine jewelry: these things only hold their value if the market consensus agrees there is value; and one of the hallmarks of value is quality and rarity.
To put it bluntly, if anyone with the price of a weekend trip to the beach can be featured in a top business magazine, then what is the value of that coverage in the publication?
Right. Not much. So, what protects the asset value of true earned media, the independent coverage of an issue, executive or company, by a credentialed journalist when favorable coverage and low-cost interviews are readily available?
Google: Thought Leadership's Digital Guardian
While Google means many things in the marketing universe, for the discipline of public relations and its role as conveyor of thought leadership, Google has emerged as ultimate boundary and gate-keeper. It ranks and reveals quality content, and pushes away the also-rans (which is why some of my client's coverage outranks even their website; a powerful earned media placement carries significant gravitas in the search world).
Why is Google the thought leadership gatekeeper? Because it needs to retain its role as unbiased source of legitimate search. Allowing search to be impacted by paid-placement media results ultimately lowers the confidence of the consumer in Google ranking and results. An earlier post of ours takes a look at the power of Google, SEO and public relations.
This is content which is featured "as seen in" on company websites cannot be found in search. Google won't index independent content, as it impacts credibility. And that is an issue as critical for thought leaders and enterprises as it is for the world's foremost search engine. Which means, in my humble opinion, the need for journalists, and independent news coverage, is here to stay. But so are the other communication strategies.
What does all of this boil down to? Here's what I decided
Pam's Three Laws of Thought Leadership Immutability
1. Original, Visionary Thinking Always Needed
Leaders of companies and causes lead precisely because they see pain points, solutions, big pictures, and are often the very first to see things in a fresh new light. Society needs them; we most especially need to hear what they have to say, and read their words. The role of the public relations expert is to help them get their words out to a larger world. This need will never change.
2. The Market Decides. Always
Marketplaces are peculiar things. On a collective level, there is a continual surge and recede as solutions, products, trends and thinking are adopted and discarded. If prestigious publications are flooded with paid content, it is highly likely the market will decide the publication is not as prestigious, or more importantly, credible**. It is no accident that media outlets considered to be "authentic" have seen extraordinary rise in readership and revenues; it is a natural reaction to the rising tide of paid and opinion-driven content being served across all channels. So, yes, paid content is valuable, and will largely find a receptive audience. But issues such as credibility and trust will belong to what they perceive as independent media coverage.
3. There is a Time and a Place
The reality is the marketplace - and marketing industry - needs a smart mix of ALL the channels, paid and earned. While there is tremendous benefit to having an independent journalist cover an executive's forward thinking, or a company's breaking news, the reality is paid marketing content is critical for sustained, managed engagement with the consumer.
My course of action for my clients is to keep these channels separate and distinct. Do not try and pass off a paid placement, advertorial or other controlled content as the work of an independent, credible journalist. Both Google and your market community will look askance. DO, however, use the paid and and PR channel mix to carry a blend of strategic messages and market touch-points across social, digital and media channels, ultimately connecting with your customer in a fluid, seamless and multi-channel way.
*At the crux of this change is a topic I've written about previously: PESO - the strategic combination of Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media channels, and their impact on both the brand and the position of company executive leadership.
**This research summary provides a valuable look into consumers'relationship with the media.