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SXSWi: The PR perspective of social media on steroids


March 31, 2011

Jay Rosen
Jay Rosen

After much anticipation across all social media platforms, the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference took place in Austin, Texas on March 11-15. During these five days, various gurus and experts showcased the innovation and development occurring throughout the digital sphere. While SXSWi doesn’t offer a specific track for public relations, many notable PR and social media strategists joined an army of reporters and bloggers for panel discussions, debates and Twitter tugs-of-war. 

This year’s “Future of Journalism” track, sponsored by the Knight Foundation and American Public Media, provided several sessions about the changing role and nature of journalism. Rich Teplitsky, immediate past chair of PRSA’s Technology Section and vice president of client services at high-tech firm Lois Paul & Partners of Austin, shares his thoughts on the conference.

Bloggers vs. journalists: The next 100 Years War?

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen continues to believe that the ongoing struggle between traditional journalists and bloggers is impeding the evolution of news gathering and reporting.

Rosen, who also publishes the popular Press Think blog, delivered a standing-room only diatribe at SXSWi on March 12 titled “The Twisted Psychology of  Bloggers vs. Journalists.”

He cites numerous examples of the endless sniping between traditional journalists and new-era bloggers who threaten to permanently change the coverage and production of news. 

“Disruptions caused by the Internet threaten to expose certain buried conflicts at the heart of modern journalism and a commercialized press,” Rosen said. “Raging at bloggers is a way to keep these demons at bay. It exports inner conflicts to figures outside the press.  Also — and this is important — bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

Rosen also presented several causes of stress that bloggers create for journalists:

  • A collapsing economic model, as print and broadcast dollars are exchanged for digital dimes.
  • A shift in power. The tools of the modern media have been distributed to the people formerly known as the audience.
  • A new pattern of information flow, in which “stuff” moves horizontally, peer to peer, as effectively as it moves vertically, from producer to consumer (or, as Rosen called it, “audience atomization overcome”).
  • An erosion of trust and the loss of authority.

How do we fix this contentious situation?

Rosen believes that members of the traditional press need to get over the “broken story [the press] has been telling itself,” which “no longer helps the journalist navigate the real world conditions under which journalism is done today.”

Rosen also charges that those professionals in interactive fields — including public relations —  are part of the solution for mending these fences.

The transcript of Rosen’s session can be found on his website.

Why U.S. media are competing with public relations for providing sources

From 1992 to 2009, publishers have reduced commercial news editorial staffs by a third. Meanwhile, during the same time period, the number of  PR professionals has doubled — a fact that continues to concern American Public Media and the Knight Foundation, according to Public Insight Network (PIN) editor Andrew Haeg.  American Public Media, the largest producer of national programs for public radio after NPR founded PIN.

Haeg moderated the panel “Changing News Rooms & News Consumers” on March 12. The participants were Bruce Koon, news director at KQED Public Media in San Francisco; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University; and Lisa Frazier, CEO of  The Bay Citizen.

During the panel, Haeg discussed PIN, a system that enables average citizens to register in a database as sources for journalists and news organizations. This network aims to bypass traditional PR channels so that reporters can be “better informed, more connected to the communities they serve, and able to produce more powerful and trusted stories.”  In 2009, PIN received a $2.95 million, three-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to continue its program.

According to Haeg, the rise in PR hiring over the past decade, coupled with the volume of  PR response to source channels such as Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and PRNewswire’s ProfNet, is impacting the quality of news gathering and hindering reporters’ ability to find credible sources. 

Haeg’s vision is “not for journalists to spend their day rewriting news releases and adding a source on top of it.” Still, Haeg admitted that there is room for PIN and other media organizations to work with corporate and agency PR staffs who represent well-qualified, topic-appropriate sources and interview subjects.

The future of public relations

Here are several takeaways from the March 15 session titled “Why PR’s Future May Not Look Like PR” moderated by David Armano, senior vice president, Edelman Digital, and Richard Brewer-Hay, chief blogger, eBay:

  • Timing in public relations is still everything
  • Communicating key messages is less about targeting audiences and more about targeting topics
  • Integrating social media must be pervasive in everything that PR professionals do
  • Fitting new social media strategies into old PR tactics won’t work
  • Understanding that the new way of approaching public relations is more relational, more casual and authentic 

Linsey Krauss, senior account representative, Lois Paul & Partners



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