How are traditional PR practitioners coping with the new media landscape?

We ask Yard's Lekha Ly and Emma Malcolmson for their thoughts

Lekha Ly…

With almost a decade of PR experience in a mixture of traditional PR and digital PR roles, I’ve seen an obvious shift in the ways traditional PR agencies operate. In consumer industries like wellness, fashion and beauty, social media influencers are the new editors we want our products to be in the hands of. PR practitioners carefully select an influencer who has the same brand values as their client and reach an audience that matches the client’s target demographic. So far, so PR.

However, the lines blur between marketing and PR, as there is monetary exchange and a contract between the PR company and the influencer. The influencer’s review is often scripted like an advert would be, and it’s often argued that based on this, consumer PR, along with print media, is dying.

If the above is the case, then are PR practitioners really coping well with the changing media landscape?

I have to say I sit on the fence with this argument. On one side, traditional PR practitioners are masters at relaying brand messaging. If they are in-house PRs, they are experts in their industry, and journalists rely on them heavily for industry information and trends. What often gets missed in digital PR is brand messaging and building valuable relationships with the media. I’ve recently transitioned back into digital PR after a long 7 years in traditional PR, and with this I bring brand building experience and a sound understanding of what journalists want.

The best PR campaigns I’ve seen are ones that merge the creativity of digital PR through content marketing for clients that are not usually newsworthy. One that really stands out to me is the Highland Spring collaboration with Pantone. The client (Highland Spring) briefed their agency to come up with a campaign that promotes their new brand platform- “Be Your Natural Self”. This led to the idea that water helps our natural functions (such as sleep and concentration) work better, but we don’t drink enough of it.

The PR agency then partnered with Pantone to create a colour chart for pee! Of course, the darker the shade, the more dehydrated you are. The colour names stayed on brand (the light colour which we should be aiming for was appropriately called ‘Highland Spring in Your Step’). The campaign received well deserved coverage in most online national titles.

My only hiccup:
Highland Spring elevated this campaign by putting it on their own website, alongside tips on how to drink more water. With so much mainstream coverage in titles with high domain authorities, they could have added a CTA (call to action) at the end of the press release to say that Highland Spring’s website is filled with advice on how to increase your water intake, and encouraged journalists to link through, in order to help improve their search rankings.

It’s these tactics that traditional PR practitioners need to adopt in order to make their coverage more valuable for SEO, and Digital PR practitioners need to adopt traditional PR tactics in order to get better quality coverage. Agencies like Yard are recruiting traditional PR specialists to help adopt these tactics.

Emma Malcolmson…

Perhaps I’m biased, but I wonder how traditional PR will cope with longevity if even the media is now primarily digital? But then, I’m part of a generation who’ve been described as digital junkies, with smart technology in our hands long before we even reached double digits.

Consumers are chronically online, and I fear that there’s no real substitute to track and measure success in traditional PR when you compare it to its digital sibling. In an industry that’s already difficult to pinpoint success, showing coverage to a client is simply not enough. We need to show our clients the value of what we do — digitally and tangibly. Building backlinks is critical for any SEO strategy, not just a digital PR strategy. We use these links to show our clients that we can PR them, whilst increasing their search visibility and providing value to their customers.

As a digital PR professional who recognises the wealth of knowledge passed down to us from our traditional PR practitioners, I feel that traditional PRs are similarly going to have to adopt digital PR tactics. The news is fast, and you always need to think one step ahead. We use Google search trend data and social listening tools to help identify trends before they take off, so that we’re helping journalists with topics that their audiences are searching for.

Helping journalists is something that traditional PRs always have done, but trend data is just a newer way of doing it, and some of the best digital PR campaigns I see hone in on trends, social listening and genuinely provide value to their target audience. One campaign from this year which has already made it to the top of my favourite campaigns list is Lawnstarter’s ‘2022’s Best Cities to Get Stoned’.

We’re all very aware of the reforms and de-stigmatisation of marijuana in recent years, especially for medicinal purposes. By joining in on this conversation, Lawnstarter will have undoubtedly tapped into a new audience they might never have before, framing their company and brand as someone progressive and in tune with the culture of tomorrow.

I love data-scraping campaigns which use scores to create newsworthy rankings. By showing the numbers, you’re showing the consumer hard facts, not just opinions or expert takes. Lawnstarter’s campaign is hugely data focused — and this is a crucial thing to do in a digital PR campaign. Ranking nearly 100 of the biggest cities in the US where recreational use of marijuana is legal, they scraped data of 12 indicators that make a ‘smoking good time’, including ‘munchies’, access and community. A quick look at Ahrefs shows that the landing page for this campaign alone has over 1000 backlinks.

The thing I would have done differently:
The landing page. With such a fun campaign, I wish Lawnstarter presented their data in a more impactful way.

Tomorrow’s consumer is moving steadfastly away from heavily branded self-promotion. They crave authenticity, added value to them and subtlety. They want to relate to a brand, not be awe-inspired by it as something they might never be able to be a part of. They can recognise spam and fluff a mile off, and that’s where the two sides of PR might never find a happy medium with each other.

It is my belief that digital PR and traditional PR will ultimately blend in time. Until that day, this Gen Z digital PR practitioner will be preaching the power of backlinks, rankings and data-led campaigns until the next generation of PRs comes in and teaches me a new way forward. As a PR practitioner (digital or traditional), you should be an ambassador for the client you are representing in order to cope with the changing media landscape. What both digital and traditional PR practitioners can agree on is that we should all have a sound understanding of the industry we’re representing, excellent networking skills and brand guidelines. By mastering these, we’re able to get more relevant coverage for clients.

Lekha Ly

In Lekha’s ten years of working in PR, she has managed the consumer comms for some of the world’s biggest personal care brands such as Gillette, Aussie and Crabtree & Evelyn. She also independently managed the global communications strategy for Bulldog Skincare, who were the most mentioned male skincare brand in the UK press during her time there.Since then, she has led the PR for an award-winning dental care brand with a focus on formulating narratives around key sustainability initiatives. Her experience includes working with NPD and supply chain teams to help ensure companies meet sustainability targets. Her knowledge around environmental concerns the media landscape is pivotal to the clients she now manages at Yard.

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Emma Malcolmson

Emma started her career in Digital PR and SEO with Yard in 2021 after completing a master's in Digital Journalism at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Emma's got her finger on the pulse of what's hot and what's not and uses her knowledge of popular culture, social issues, the news agenda, social media and everything in between to find inspiration for things to sink her teeth into and turn into campaigns or reactive coverage for clients. Emma has a keen interest in financial PR as well as trends-led pieces.

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