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Most PR people believe print coverage is more valuable than online: an exercise in cognitive dissonance?

Gordon Macmillan at Brand Republic reports on a new survey which claims that “most PR professionals still favour offline media coverage over digital despite recent consumer research identifying online as the more influential medium.”

He continues: “More than half, or 53%, see it as more valuable, but the real story is that it’s their clients who are still deeply attached to print. Apparently nearly two-thirds or 64% of PRs believe their stakeholders prefer print coverage more than online, television or radio and more than half or 53% believe their stakeholders are more influenced by print coverage than television, online or radio.”

He rightly picks up on the word “believe” and asks: “I mean, don’t they ask? Apparently not according to the Parker, Wayne & Kent survey. It seems to be all about the permanence of print. The fact you can hold it in your hand and turn the page (maybe they never heard to the printer?).” If you examine PWK’s own press release on it, the whole thing is predicated on the “belief” of PRs.

I continue to be fascinated by what appears to a widespread cognitive dissonance in the PR industry (an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Or to keep with the Orwellian sub theme of this blog, doublethink).

In this case, the two contradictory attitudes are: the belief that print media continues to be the dominant media influence and the fact that most of the real data on the subject seems to suggest the opposite.

Why is this happening? Here’s my theory.

In spite of claims to the contrary, the main reason clients still hire PR firms is for “media relations” (although as PR Week has previously reported, clients are spending most of their budget on account management, admin and reporting). And media relations still tends to be geared around getting print based coverage – because that is the skill set (inventory) that most PR firms still have to sell.

So you can see the temptation to try and justify what you have to sell by implying there is still a need for it. And I don’t deny that there is still a large education job to be done client side regarding what are the most effective techniques today. Some cynics might argue that if clients want print coverage lets sell what they ask for – even though we know it isn’t best solution. However, you get the sense from the PWK survey that no one is really asking the questions clients really want answering – namely, how can you help me understand how my target audiences behave, what really does influence them and what is the most effective means of delivering a measurable impact on those audiences?

Over the last 18 months I’ve tried not to miss the opportunity to quiz people about their media consumption habits. On a number of occasions, I’ve asked people to try a little test – basically, to write down what they think their average media consumption is over a week – and then to actually write down what they really do. Most of the time, people are very surprised about the divergence between their belief and reality. The most common is to over-estimate the time they spend reading newspapers and magazines and to underestimate the amount of time they spend online – as well as how online influences their decision making process.

However, before I get accused of being some kind of online obsessive, let’s be clear – I’m not saying print media is completely irrelevant. That’s patent nonsense – and my own recent experience bears out the role it can play in a purchase decision. However, to automatically assume that print is the most influential medium is more an act of faith than rational judgment. And don’t forget the shelf life of print coverage is a few hours.

The starting point has to be the data and evidence that justify an approach. When you actually start to gather real information about how people really do consume media – both on and offline – you build a picture of a very different world to the one that PRs in PWK’s survey seem to inhabit (the emphasis placed on buyer personas by search marketing agencies is an example of how PR could and should be helping their clients).

It’s a bit like when a relationship is going down the tube. Although logically he may know its over, he still clings to the belief that “she still loves him really.” Surely better to face reality and move on – the heartbreak will be more painful the longer you refuse to face facts.

4 replies on “Most PR people believe print coverage is more valuable than online: an exercise in cognitive dissonance?”

Why the disconnect? Maybe it is fear of change amongst consultants? Online media ia changing incredibly quickly and if you have quarterly targets, staff churn and new business to manage stopping to undersrtand how best to exploit digital is just a step too far. Seems to me that the onlien world is waht the PR sector has been wnating for the last 20 year. Fast, transparent and measurable.

Richard – thanks for the comment – I think you are absolutely right. And I don’t deny it is a tough process for any agency – how do you balance the transition from your current skill set and organisational structure to one that more accurately maps onto the emerging environment. And do it without damaging growth, profit and employee churn? Likewise, if clients aren’t demanding it, why try and build something they don’t yet realise they need? However, anticipating demand is marketing 101. Those that bite the bullet and are building the skill sets and new services that clients are going to start demanding en masse (soon) are surely the ones that stand to benefit most.

[…] Those PR folk who still think print coverage is more valuable than online ought to take note of this latter point – as print circulations decline and advertising revenues shrink, the amount of editorial real estate available becomes smaller – and as media consumption patterns continue to shift in favour of digital, then the default focus on print based media relations becomes even harder to justify. […]

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