Apr 29, 2011

Visual PR – Pipe Dream or Reality?

The seismic shift in how information is being consumed and the increasing power of social networks to inform and engage audiences has upended the news business and, with it, the practice of public relations.  But is PR keeping up with the rapidly shifting digital information environment?

This question occurred to me as I was working on a blog post (as yet unpublished) about best practices for using multimedia in digital PR messages (press releases and pitches, primarily.)  I often turn to PR Newswire’s own newswire to look for examples, and when I do so, I put myself into the shoes of a journalist or blogger by using PR Newswire for Journalists (“PRNJ”) to sift and sort through press release content, giving myself the same view of press releases tens of thousands of media professionals and bloggers use.

Is PR keeping up?

I looked at the handful of multimedia press releases, which bundle assortments of content into a sleek search-engine friendly format loaded with social tools.  They’re cool, they generate great results, but they’re pricier than a text press release and require more lead time to produce.  While more and more people are using MNRs today, fact is, these “fully loaded” press releases represent a fraction n of PR Newswire’s total volume.  The preponderance of press releases are text-only.

Because PR budgets are still several sizes too small, and because we all have to do more with less these days, I started to look deeper into the text releases, thinking that folks were probably linking to associated multimedia content with in the press releases they were distributing over the wire if they didn’t have budget to do an MNR or even run an image along with the press release.  Click. Click. Click.  I leafed through the wire, first looking at the general news feed, and then digging into more consumer-oriented copy.

In a sea of text, visuals can make content stand out. Image courtesy of Intersection Consulting.

My findings, while unscientific, were still pretty worrying.  In this age of connected content and interactive communications and wired audiences, I was still seeing an awful lot of text-only press releases that didn’t link to other assets.  Sure, a link to the company home page is included most of the time.  But links to pages offering more product information, pictures of people named in the press release, or infographics illustrating details?  They were extremely scarce.    Some snooping on a rival newswire site revealed more of the same – a real dearth of links and multimedia in press release content.   And this was even more worrying.  Most newswires – PRN included – don’t charge you any more to include links in press releases.  Even if you don’t have the budget for the full multimedia presentation of your news, if you have the assets somewhere on the web, you can link to them in the press release, alerting journalists and bloggers to the availability of multimedia content, and giving interested readers somewhere to go if they want more information.

Listening to the market – what tactics are discussed?

Thoughts of multimedia best practices flung aside, I started to look more deeply into the practice of using photos, graphics and video in public relations communications – in pitches, press releases and press kits.   I combed the 2011 archives of leading PR industry press – and while there are many discussions of tactics – writing, pitching, ditching jargon and all manner of social media advice – I found no stories on multimedia.  Nothing about getting usable video or photos from the camera in your briefcase or the device in your pocket.  No advice for using images in today’s highly visual web environment.

Now, time for some disclosure. I’ve been with PR Newswire since (wincing) 1995.  I started out as an account manager, before digital layouts were commonplace in newsrooms, and when Compuserve was the *coolest* thing anyone had ever seen.  Photos, at that time, were expensive to produce and cumbersome for both PR pros and media professionals alike.   However, as newsrooms went digital, media outlets started to demand more images.  They were begging for pictures to run with stories.     Being a good little account manager, I took this information – with advice about photo sizing and DPIs, and photo editor contact info – to my clients, and started talking about using images with press releases.  Many I spoke to thought it sounded like a good idea, but noted that they usually didn’t have images available when it came time to pitch a story or issue a press release.   And that’s what I heard for years – even when I was responsible for PR Newswire’s wire and photo businesses more than a decade later – even as the demand for images (and video) in newsrooms increased, and YouTube started to log its user stats in the billions of hours.

So I decided to do what any good, wired PR or social media pro does these days, and started listening.  Many of you know I can often be found hanging out on LinkedIn, Quora and Twitter.  And while there are plenty of conversations on these networks about all manner of PR tactics, I found a similar void in the discussions on these networks around multimedia that I had observed elsewhere.

It started to occur to me that maybe I’m way off base, and just dead wrong, and that PR really isn’t concerned with visuals.  In my heart I didn’t believe that was the case, but I needed to test that theory.   I donned my flame suit and lobbed a question out to the public relations Answers section on LinkedIn.  I am a big fan of this little corner of LinkedIn – it’s populated by a smart and feisty group that isn’t afraid to voice its opinion. Here’s the question I asked:

Discussions of PR tactics seem to focus largely on the written aspect – crafting message, honing pitches, etc. Creating and using visuals (e.g. photos, videos, infographics) is generally given short shrift. Do you share this perception, and if so, why?

As I expected I received a bevy of thoughtful answers.

PR pros weigh in – and it’s not just a budget issue

One respondent, who wished to remain anonymous, offered some telling perspective, writing, “I find that PR professionals in general are more comfortable utilizing written tactics. Digital marketing is new. It wasn’t taught in universities in the 80’s. Unless the person has a passion for learning social media and designing skills, they are reluctant to use it and will stay with what their comfortable with.”

Former journalist and communications consultant  Michelle Damico, who has fully embraced and integrated multimedia in her PR and social media strategies, offered a similar view, surmising that most PR agency owners/ executives/ managers didn’t mold their careers shooting video to tell a story.   Steve Caldwell of Ruby Communications agreed, saying, “Part of the reason is training and habit. For those with formal training in PR, written communication is the big focus. I think this is a good example of people (and organizations) being reluctant to change.”

None of those who responded to my query disagreed with my premise, and some were very vocal advocates of using multimedia in public relations communications.

 Leslie J Yerman, a communications strategist is a proponent of using visuals. “Branding and PR tactics should be strategically focused on the client’s market and niche. The message should definitely be supplemented with visuals,” she said. “If a client is using stories as a PR tool, which it should, photos and videos, if possible, should be part of the package.”

Henneke Duistermaat, company director at Britannia Living Ltd., was even more strident in her support for using visuals, noting, “When discussing PR tactics, we always discuss what pictures are required and whether we would like to offer any of the pictures exclusive to a magazine.” She continued, “Visuals are too important to be ignored, and even when (PR) budgets are small, one should consider dedicating some of the budget to photography. Alternatively, consider re-using photos that have been made for other purposes. After all a picture is worth a thousand words…”

Budget issues were definitely an obstacle cited by several respondents. Cyrus Afzali, a public relations and social media consultant said, “I think one of the key reasons for this is budget. Most of us are serving small and mid-sized businesses that don’t have the extensive budgets that can be required for content creation.”

A creative idea for producing visuals was offered by Elena Verlee, who agreed that budgets can be a problem, noting, “For smaller companies, it’s often a budgetary issue. One way we’ve helped clients get around that is to work with the local press. If they’re interested in a story then they send a photographer around to take the visual, and we can negotiate a discounted rate with the photographer (often a freelancer). Getting on local TV means the client now has “video” to put on their site and it gives everyone ideas on what else can be done visually. It’s about making do with what resources you have and being creative with it. Whether we work with a technology company or a B2C company, visuals are definitely key, and can often save small businesses money by not having to send out samples.”

When all was said and done, I concluded that visuals should be a core tactic in the public relations toolbox.  But more education is needed – PR pros need to know how to produce visuals and use them effectively to generate real results. With respect to the budget issue, my own belief is that PR’s traditional focus on print and written communications has kept the budget focus on those tactics, and in order to start securing more budget, PR needs to first prove that visuals are effective – creating a sort of chicken and egg conundrum.

What do you think?  Do you agree?  What’s stopping your organization from using visuals?  Budget? Know-how?  Time constraints? Let me know.  If some other issues come up in the ensuing discussion, or if you tell me what sort of information you’d like to see, I promise we’ll tackle these issues here in short order.

Learn more about visual PR, and using multimedia to differentiate, illustrate and enliven your messages.

This topic also generated lively discussion on LinkedIn about whether or not (and why) conversations about PR tactics tend to exclude the creation of visuals.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

Lead image courtesy of Flickr user neoliminal

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