The goalposts have moved, money is now doing even more of the talking. Pitching press releases based on their newsworthiness and relevance of the story may soon become a thing of the past. Image Credit: Pexels

The pandemic has accelerated transformation in many industries by condensing several years’ worth of disruption into a few months. It also compounded problems on sectors already reeling under the impact of new tech and the fourth industrial revolution.

The pandemic has been particularly unforgiving for the print media, ushering in a further reduction in ad revenues and, in some cases, the discontinuation of some print editions as part of measures taken by governments to curb the spread of the virus, thus shaving off vital income in the form of retail sales and subscription renewals.

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News publishers have always known how to fight back by reinventing themselves. The resilience was first showcased early on during the digital revolution when publishers created appealing subscription-only or open-to-all portals. Various gradients of content - from premium to exclusive and from podcasts to videos - gave rise to different subscription models, thus keeping up with the changing habits of hard-core news consumers.

Native, branded or sponsored content and other forms of paid-for masked editorial coverage started becoming the norm, combining different types of static and video content getting published on news websites and their affiliated social media channels.

Will they work?

More recently, some of the Middle East’s most prestigious news media started introducing paywalls for their online editions generating new revenue streams, in line with internationally acclaimed titles such as Financial Times, Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal. Whether this strategy proves successful and sustainable for the region’s publishers remains to be seen.

Linking publishing of editorial content to commercial considerations makes me sceptical. I am referring to the new breed of content publishing, according to which a publisher sells news space. Think of it as “advertorials on steroid”.

End of agencies too?

Why would clients then bother to deal with PR agencies at all? Why would they need to go through the positioning and messaging process, media training, communications strategy development and so on if they can achieve their end objective – favourable media coverage - through a simple commercial agreement and financial transaction?

The comms community needs to take notice and act quickly and decisively to radically reposition and reinvent the sector, because staying relevant while evolving is now more vital than ever before.

As an industry, PR has also managed to weather other storms in the recent past. Social media was initially deemed a threat to our livelihoods, only for it to naturally fall under our remit. Content, native or branded, or advertorial has also remained quintessentially PR, just like press releases, distribution and pitching should always be.

New ways to engage

But the rules of the game are changing. The goalposts have moved, money is now doing even more of the talking. Pitching press releases based on their newsworthiness and relevance of the story may soon become a thing of the past.

Instead, paying to have a press release published is no different than paying for an ad placement, only cheaper. So, advertisers would probably opt for the most cost-effective version, paid-for PR, as opposed to advertising.

Achieving credibility and third-party endorsement – the distinct differentiators between the practice of PR and those of its peers from advertising and marketing – will no longer be matters of skill, but rather of financial capability.

The lines have blurred beyond boundaries and action is required by the leaders of the entire spectrum of the news and communications industries to collectively reshape the landscape within which we will operate from now on.

- George Kotsolios is Managing Partner at Leidar MENA and author of “Back to the Future of Marketing: Provolve or Perish”. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios.