Fishing in a Shrinking Pond - How to Run PR During Media Layoffs

In just the month of January, layoffs in the media industry have affected journalists at Business Insider, the Los Angeles Times, TechCrunch, Sports Illustrated, and TIME, among many other publications.

Unfortunately, these layoffs aren’t shocking. According to Pew Research, from 2008 to 2020, newsroom employment declined by 26%. In the 4 years since, that trend hasn’t reversed, as 1 in 3 newsrooms conducted layoffs during COVID. The New York Times reported that, from the start of the pandemic to 2022, more than 360 newspapers have shuttered

So, what does that mean for your company’s public relations and corporate communications? It means that you have to be far more strategic and tactical in how you pursue getting your company’s message out into the world.

Here’s a few tips to make sure you navigate a winnowing media landscape intelligently and set your company up for success.

1. Be Hyper-Specific in Setting Your Audience and Your Expectations

The two biggest aspects that can cause a communications push to fail are outsized expectations or hopes to garner attention within unrealistic audiences.

All communications and PR campaigns should be undertaken from an old-school newspaper editor’s perspective, or as if you were trying to communicate it to a complete and total stranger at a bar. Imagine that you are pitching what you want your brand to say as a story to the editor or trying to grab the stranger’s attention in a busy watering hole. The editor only has a finite amount of space in his column, the barfly only maybe has 30 seconds of passing interest in what you’re saying and–presumably–zero knowledge or interest of what your brand does.

Is your story good enough to grab the attention of the stranger at the bar? Be honest with yourself. If it is, it might be a story that can catapult you out of your industry and into the mainstream. If it isn’t then it’s worth thinking about the editor analogy. Would it work for a business editor? Maybe, instead, a tech editor? Is that still too broad? Perhaps, if your company works in, say, HR SaaS–only HR editors would be likely to care?

It’s important to have a communications partner who is willing to be honest with your brand in setting this audience and, importantly, managing expectations. Sometimes, putting a light push behind a minor product update is all you need and–so long as your communications partner has been clear in setting your expectations that the product update isn’t going to be headline global news.

2. There’s Bait Fish, There’s Trophy Fish, and There Isn’t Much Else

In a past era, there was a vast publication ecosystem. This included “bait fish” (blog and trade publications), “everyday angler” catches (magazines and websites with specific focuses) and “trophy fish” (national and legacy newspapers and publications with million-person syndication lists).

Today, after massive changes caused by social media giants to the publication ecosystem, that middle class no longer really exists. The specialized magazines and websites that used to tally tens of thousands of readers have largely shuttered, and the space they used to cover have largely been taken up, to an ancillary level, by the large legacy and national publishers. Meanwhile, the blogs and trade publications have continued to cover those industries without the depth that the more specialized publications and magazines used to.

This, in turn, should affect how you craft your PR strategy. Understand that now, the journalists at top-tier national publications probably can’t delve too deeply into niche topics, and are being asked to produce more stories, faster, than ever before. Simultaneously, the smaller publications–the blogs and industry publications–now also need to cover more than they have in the past. They still serve a very valuable purpose–while they might not offer the vast readership or the sexy, in-depth editorials of the larger publications, their readerships can be incredibly engaged and valuable. 

With this information, you should craft your storylines and your communications campaigns accordingly. You should understand that only a few stories about your brand, maybe, have the ability to cut through to the top-tier publications every year. Beyond that, you should focus on supplying the trades and industry publications with updated and direct information about your company in a timely fashion. The combination of looking for larger stories while making sure your product information is properly disseminated, with patience, will get your company into a good position.

3. Be Patient, Be Persistent 

The best way to kneecap a communications, or a marketing campaign, is to take a shortsighted approach to measuring its success. No war has ever been won in a day, so if you start your PR program expecting immediate success within the first few months, and judge it based on its performance in that timeframe–you will never be happy.

Long term, year-over-year consistency will drive the results your brand so desperately desires. Garnering placement in some of the top publications like The New York Times can take months of plugging away to finally get to the finish line. So then why would you start a PR program if you’re only going to measure its success after one quarter?

And while it is important for clients to practice patience in maintaining and measuring their PR programs amidst a winnowing publication ecosystem it is equally important for communications professionals to remain relentless in pitching their targets (you can check out our guide to pitching and our step-by-step eBook on effective data-driven storytelling for further tips). The reality is that the majority of journalists are overworked right now and are being pitched, constantly, so large periods of no response from targets can eventually result in periods of frequent and important coverage. If you ask a client to be patient, you must also promise them you will persevere.

Ultimately, the loss of jobs and the closing of publications globally is tragic. But it doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity to maintain a successful PR program–rather, it requires a deep understanding of the media landscape, realistic goals and expectations, and a steady, strategic focus.

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Post Author

Rob Pursell
Rob is a senior account director at Gravitate with over a decade of experience working for companies in enterprise technology, biotechnology, food and beverage, sports, entertainment, lifestyle, and fashion. He started his career as a journalist and freelance writer.

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