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Print media's decline: consequences for PR?

PR & SOCIAL MEDIA: With the bastion that was printed media struggling to cope with declining advertising spends and the explosion of social media, campaigns that connect companies directly with their customers will distinguish spectacular PR agencies from the average.
The announced closure of The Weekender and its subsequent last edition on Saturday, 8 November 2009, is sad news. However, its demise is merely an exclamation point in a much larger tale that is playing itself out locally and abroad.

Suspended, closed down or combined

2009 has not been a gentle mistress for printed publications in South Africa. According to Ibis Media, almost 130 publications have been suspended, closed down or combined as of the end of October 2009. While nearly the same amount of new publications have been launched, presumably to exploit new niches, print media is precariously balanced on its pedestal, with declining advertising spend threatening to knock it off.

Globally, the trend is no different. Paper Cuts — a website that tracks the number of shut-downs and job losses in the American newspaper industry — estimates that over 130 US newspapers have closed so far in 2009.

The evidence seems to suggest that print media is struggling to remain relevant to audiences who are increasingly turning to the Internet for their news and relying on niche communities of their peers for information, advice and guidance.

Two-way conversations

While print media remains a valid channel for specific messages clients may wish to promote, the power to define a clients' brands, services and products has long since shifted out of these traditional mainstays and into the hands of the public.

Blogs, social networks, collaborative online information portals, such as Wikipedia, and easily accessible multimedia sites are helping individuals define and dictate how they interact with companies and brands.

More importantly, this shift has highlighted the importance of creating two-way ‘conversations' with customers, whether it is through digital social media or more commonplace avenues.

A toppled wall

As audiences and communication channels have multiplied and fragmented, controlling the flow of information has become almost impossible. The mentality that divides public relations, the media and the public is the debris of a toppled wall that cannot be rebuilt. Nevertheless, this destruction is also beneficial and an invitation to PR agencies and companies to talk, directly and honestly, with the communities only understood via proxy for so long.

One only needs to look at the example of Frank Eliason, a Comcast service manager who suggested managing Comcast's customer queries through Twitter. The move has allowed Comcast, with very little capital outlay, to see what people are ‘tweeting' about their service and engage with these individuals one-on-one on a public platform where everyone is watching. Comcast and Eliason's success is not the result of leveraging a technological service, but through recognising that it is the people that matter, not the technological medium.

Printed media continues to offer certain benefits: the credibility readers attach to the publication and writers associated with it, a mature channel of communication and a platform for focused advertising campaigns. But PR agencies have always wished for an undiluted, efficient means of communicating with their client's customers. As the saying warns, be careful what you wish for because you may receive it.
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