“In the foreseeable future, half of consumers will not care whether their news comes from media, social media, a corporate channel or what. As long as the content matches his or her values,” said Fred Cook, Chairman of the Golin, a global communications group, at the ICCO Global Summit in Lisbon last October. This change has rerouted cash flows to web tycoons and is killing magazines and newspapers around the world.
In Finland, the issue made the headlines when the Green Party announced that they would close down their party magazine as unprofitable. As scapegoats, parties have been under fire, but partly also PR agencies who to my knowledge have very little to do with political publications.
The first question is, should party magazines be judged on the basis of financial statements or some other criterion? And if they don’t have readers and advertisers, who should fund them? Until now, members of the parties, supporters and taxpayers have been the benefactors.
Party magazines, as a product, are old-fashioned, readers don’t seem to need them anymore and, as a result, their profitability is poor. This is because communication is no longer regional, monolingual and print-scheduled. It has become global, multilingual and ubiquitous. In addition, readers’ expectations for the content’s entertainment values and objectivity have changed.
Commentators have emphasized the “uncompromising pursuit of truth” party magazines represent. However, for an outsider, their truth seems to lean towards whoever is paying the bills – just like in any stakeholder publication.
PR agencies respond to new types of needs
In my opinion, the role of the PR agencies has been misinterpreted. The claims are hyperbolic: “lobbyists, noisy campaigns, strategic advertising, core message sleeking … and certainly different from free press.”
Some claim that “power is now in PR agencies” and they are concerned that “soon only the voice of PR agency customers will be heard, because they can afford to pay”. A well-known politician even stated that “parties have started to resemble strategic PR agencies”.
It is true that the agencies have increased their market share in communications. They have recruited not only from companies but also from politics and media organisations. The growing workload and range of services require versatile skills and a broad knowledge of society and business.
Agencies have taken a role, for example, in influencing, which has traditionally been the home ground of interest groups – but we are not to blame for the situation of the press. Likewise, it is an exaggeration to claim that PR agencies would exercise power. We are rewarded for responsible researching, planning, preparing, coaching, consulting and helping to influence or lobby, but the decisions are always made by the customer. And the political power always lies with the politicians.
The difference of being a consultant or a journalist
The editor-in-chief of a student magazine sighed that “all journalists will eventually end up in communications agencies.” Not true. Journalists are needed in media houses. In addition, they set up their own communications firms or take jobs as communications experts or managers in companies or the public sector. And a small part even in PR agencies.
The services offered by PR agencies vary. There are companies that provide management consulting, media relations, content, stakeholder and decision-making meetings, marketing campaigns, and spokesperson training for executives. Some agencies offer all of these services, some an even broader repertoire.
The agencies serve companies, public sector and third sector organizations. The clients can also include parties, interest groups or non-governmental groups. Customers pay for outsourced expertise because they choose to do so. Corporate communications departments are often small or focus on selected key tasks, and they need assistance from partners for peak times and special tasks such as working with the media.
I now return to what Fred Cook said about consumers’ indifference with the media. It is a nasty forecast also for PR agencies. We need reliable media because our clients’ news is in the best environment when they are part of renowned media content. We have seen what happens when the media’s position has been challenged in some EU countries. We must constantly remind consumers about the most reliable sources of information.
It is, therefore, in the common interest of journalists and PR agencies to defend the freedom of the media.
The writer is the Managing Director of Mailand Communications and Chairman of Finnish PR Agencies as well as a member of the Board of ICCO.