Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Need for Speed

There was an interesting article by John Harris in the Guardian on Monday (The new seriousness) charting the decline in the circulation of long lead titles concerned with what he describes as “the invincible tyranny of celebrity culture” (Heat down 16%, Zoo down 13.6%, FHM down 10% and Closer down 7.5%). Circulation of the higher brow opinion-rich media on the other hand has seen an upswing. The Economist’s circulation is up 5.6% and Prospect’s is up 10.7%.

John Harris argues that consumers are seeking a more detailed understanding of weighty matters in a more complex and uncertain world.

I’m sure this is the case judging by my train carriage test this morning (1 Newsweek, 3 broadsheets, a couple of trade titles, a copy of Foreign Policy Review and a Private Eye), but I think it also has much to do with changes to the way in which we are exposed to, and engage with, the news.

Being in touch today means being ultra-in-touch and that doesn’t square with the consumption of long-lead titles with contents that are six-eight weeks behind the times.

There is so much going on that we are running fast to keep up with what is going on in the world. When the most recent earthquake hit China, many people received their first reports via Twitter, pinging in the corner of their screens, rather than news agencies or the beeb.

This two-way interconnectedness has also created an explosion in the exchange of opinion. The points of contact that most of us find ourselves managing on a minute-by-minute basis are wider and more varied than they have ever been. To keep the dialogue fresh with our contacts we need to keep up to date with what is happening.
We tell more people what we think about more things more often.

In turn this has weaned our consumption habits towards those media that enable us to maintain higher than traditional levels of awareness of what’s going on in the world around us. Who do we know today that is unlikely to have some view on the rise of the Hockey Mom, the role of sub-prime in current belt-tightening, or the aesthetic credentials of Damien Hirst? Even for that matter, a view on Victoria Beckham’s barnet. The old fashioned notion of the deadline in newsrooms is disappearing. Content changes on websites all the time. They’re palimpsests. News is now about being first to market, not just with breaking news, but with things that might have otherwise waited a bit.

The by-product is changes in other behaviours. Our shopping habits are also being moulded and honed by opinion like never before. Research we commissioned for a client last year confirmed that shoppers are far more likely (as much as six times) to be influenced by opinion that they are by advertising. How many of us see advertising as anything more than a reminder or a prompt anymore? Our buying decisions are made in partnership with others. Their experiences count. We are buying in opinionated packs.

This is an important consideration for brands and public relations professionals. I am convinced that the most effective public relations activity is now focused on the immediate - the national daily media – print, broadcast and online – alongside the more earnest opinion-rich titles that carry more weight of influence with increasingly discerning and opinionated readers. I am equally convinced that in a challenging climate, less effort should be expended on the grinding process of carving out brand mentions in the rather more sedate glossy long lead titles. PR spend, I’d contend, ought to be focused on the now.

As a client of PR agencies before jumping the fence a year ago to set up this business, I sat through dozens of presentations from agencies touting the strategic merits of a long-lead engagement programme with all of its time-consuming processes and vague promises of its impact on brand perceptions - supported by 150 page powerpoint presentations. I was for a time persuaded that there was merit in the application of this costly time and effort, but I now take the view that a war of attrition, designed to place a case study with the odd brand mention on page 46 of a monthly glossy is mostly and largely a waste of time, effort and budget.
Alongside the decline in the circulation of celebrity mags are many of the biggest brands on the newsstand – women’s magazines, homestyle titles, fashion glossies and others. Few magazines are managing to achieve growth in circulation.
If you have something meaningful to say, I suspect your audience will expect you to say it louder and more quickly.

Media consumption habits would appear to support this. We rarely take to the sofa to read a glossy. By the time they’re being read, Victoria Beckham could have an aubergine afro.

Today we channel hop, we listen to podcasts, we surf at work, at home and on the move, we read the free sheets, the dailies and listen to the radio. We social network, tweet, text. All of these processes are two-way, through letters pages, comment postings, votes and text or phone ins – something that long-leads can’t deliver in the same way.

I don’t discount the value of coverage in long leads entirely – after all, all coverage has its value, assuming that it is positive and that a target audience remains. What I do reject though is the idea that it has either parity to or greater value that a solid story in the national media. Nor do I think that PR professionals should spend months dining and gradually courting a long lead editor with a view to name check for their brand buried deep in a feature.

Some may claim that a tacit endorsement for a brand by a fashion editor can do wonders for sales. My argument is that the nationals are more current, their reporters more able to quickly chart the daily nuances in trend - and the leading fashion brands themselves are amongst the most active in cultivating coverage in the national media. Fashion is rarely about the leisurely.

Better for brand owners and managers to keep their businesses topical, keep creating and delivering a pipeline of interesting, challenging announcements and keep their sights focused on the parts of the media where the new opinionated are likely to sit up, take notice, internalise and pass on your news to others. That means running with the dailies.

The days when the coffee table was the repository for truly influential messages about brands are behind us. PR budgets are better spent on the here and now, which after all is where customers make most of their decisions.

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