Brent (a pseudonym for a real live person) hired me to help him incorporate new media into his decades-old successful PR practice. During the engagement, something struck me as odd–the fact that Brent preferred information gleaned from big publications as opposed to some of the great online resources that I had pointed him toward. I’d forward a link to a blog post written by a successful PR blogger, he’d look at it casually, and then return to reading his paper. Every now and then he’d find some “new” article on social media, make a photocopy of it, and drop it on my desk for my comments, where I’d catch myself thinking, “Didn’t we discuss this topic weeks ago?”
And then it all became clear to me. Brent had built his career on a fundamental belief that the printed word represented the gold standard for his industry, and to question this belief would mean turning his back on a concept that had made him a very wealthy man. It is a belief that I, as a proponent of new media, do not share.
The Mustard is off the Hot Dog
Figure 1 illustrates how Brent’s PR career has benefited from an overlap with the Golden Age of Print. Between 1970 and 2000, Brent’s fundamental belief aligned with the industry’s high circulation numbers. Unfortunately, that has been changing over the past 20 years, as circulations are 23% off their all-time peaks. And if 23% doesn’t sound scary enough for you, consider the fact that today’s circulation numbers have receded to levels not seen since the Truman Administration.
Brent’s business has weathered the slow and steady decline because the majority of the loss has occurred at the smaller newspapers–until recently. Over the past five years, the nation’s top 25 newspapers have lost 25% of their circulation numbers as indicated in Figure 2. With his fundamental belief shaken to its core, Brent is now faced with a very scary situation; he’s staring straight down the barrel of The Innovator’s Dilemma.
So What’s Next?
I’m not recommending that Brent throw the baby out with the bathwater. Big media still has a punch, and therefore, it has a significant role to play. But businesses cannot rely on it solely anymore. Until mass media can design a business model that plays nice in an online world, businesses must do everything that they can to break their dependence on them. Companies must consider the fact that audience is an asset, and that they must adopt publishing principles in order to build their own audiences.
The successful adoption of social media technologies requires two things: 1) questioning fundamental assumptions that don’t align with today’s communications realities and 2) combining the storytelling practices of old with the delivery benefits of new. Together we make a great team. Separately, we’ll continue to be at odds with one another.
And while we are fighting over our beliefs, the only person who’ll suffer is our mutual customer.