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The Evolution Of Public Relations: Adapting To Today’s Reality

Published: June 11, 2020       Updated: June 16, 2024

5 min read

Once upon a time, Americans started their day with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper—picked up right from their doorsteps. Those days are long gone. Today, many get their news in 280-character snippets, from YouTube, or—if they’re committed—the first few paragraphs of an online article. Simply put, we operate differently, and, for public relations practitioners, that means evolution is critical to success. As a whole, the PR industry must quickly adapt to meet the needs and expectations of both today’s journalists and the news consumers we hope to reach.

Know Your Audience

The cornerstone of successful PR in the current media landscape is building trust and nurturing relationships. Just as you wouldn’t walk into a job interview without learning anything about the company, PR practitioners need to put in the time to research media targets before a pitch is ever sent. What have they written recently? What are they tweeting? Are there recurring elements in all their articles—executive interviews, tie-ins to trends, quality images and video, industry stats?  

We live in a world where everything is tailored to our preferences. Therefore, it is imperative to treat media targets with the same approach. We are all accustomed to—and expect—the brands we patronize to give us exactly what we want, based on our past purchases, internet searches and even what we’re talking about at home (Alexa is always listening…). Along those lines, it’s crucial that we craft individualized pitches for each reporter—taking into account their recent articles, social media posts and even incorporating their hobbies and favorite topics, if applicable. A little research goes a long way toward building rapport.

Operate with Empathy

Newsrooms are shrinking, writers fresh out of college are replacing industry veterans, reporters are jumping from job to job—and, all the while, those journalists are now juggling numerous topics or “beats,” often for multiple outlets. It is more important than ever to approach media with the understanding that their time is precious, simply because it’s scarce. To build mutually beneficial relationships, PR pros must approach every pitch with experts on deck, armed with precisely the information and assets needed to make journalists’ lives easier.

A decade ago, a company could put a press release on the wire, blast it out to a massive database of media targets, and garner significant results. Today, a mass distribution like that may elicit a response, but that response may very well be to unsubscribe from future messages. For the Amazons and Nintendos of the world, an impersonal blast will still earn quality coverage. For start-ups, mid-size companies and challenger brands, success hinges on adopting an engagement-focused approach rather than the mass broadcast methods of yesteryear. To show your overworked (and often underpaid) media targets the respect they deserve, craft pitches specifically for them. The content of your pitch may be great, but with a mass distribution, you run the risk of making a reporter feel they weren’t worth your time for little pre-pitch research.

Find Your Audience

Targeting the right media is paramount to success. Everyone loves to see their name in The New York Times, but is that the source people who can make the decision to buy your product or adopt your solution are reading? If you’re looking to gain customers in your industry, trade publications may be a better fit to truly drive business objectives and impact the bottom line.

PR professionals must also consider a variety of new factors. At the heart of understanding the evolution of PR is understanding what PR is. There was a time when PR and media relations were synonymous, but more than ever, it’s important to remember that PR stands for public relations.

Whereas once companies could easily reach target publics via the media alone, brands must now ensure their news is popping up in target audiences’ Google searches, social media channels, news apps, podcasts, and video streaming platforms. Media relations still plays a vital role in gaining brand awareness, but businesses must assess exactly who their public is and where they are consuming news. The audience is still there. They’ve just moved to multiple addresses—splitting their news consumption across myriad sources. For PR practitioners, that means the road to success has a few more stops.

Those new destinations vary substantially by industry and business type. Consumer brands may need to bolster their PR initiatives with influencer engagement and experiential programs, whereas B2B companies can benefit from ramping up analyst relations, establishing a presence across industry review sites, and making content creation a priority. These program “add-ons” can mean the difference between a check-the-boxes PR campaign—with limited success—and a strategic plan, focused on driving a brand’s business objectives. 

Educate, Evolve then Act

Whether you are developing PR initiatives internally or with the help of an agency, it is imperative to take the new world of PR into account. Make sure your team or agency understands the evolution of PR—and has the tools needed to go beyond traditional media relations methodology. It is that knowledge base that enables PR practitioners to create sophisticated PR programs focused on nurturing relationships, identifying the needs of today’s news consumer, establishing a presence across sources, and always keeping a finger on the pulse of up-and-coming emerging media. 

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