The year 2010 has turned out to be a watershed for the evolution of editorial content. Until recent months, the public relations profession had largely adopted a “content-is-content” attitude. This principle dictated that we may need to write a little more compactly for the Web, or “chunk it up” a bit more, or be sure to get keywords in the title and the lead; but at its foundation, writing for print publications and online publications varied little. And it has been writing that has defined content.
Assuredly, solid, high-quality writing is essential for PR practitioners who expect to communicate effectively, retain clients and attract prospects. Every journalist understands, however, that writing is the last stage of the process of creating editorial content. Many PR professionals have all but shunted aside the most vital stage: reporting. Information gathered days, weeks or even months earlier continues to be recycled into bylines, blogs, Web pages and e-newsletters, with little or no updating.
This content becomes “writing,” but it can no longer really be viewed as “news.” Often, it fails even to qualify as reflecting a trend. Search engines and social sites like Google, Twitter and Yahoo now are publishing trends daily, in near real time, and these trends shift over news cycles. Calling the “cloud” a trend, calling “green technology” a trend, calling “electronic health records” a trend is wholly insufficient now. Trends build and erupt like sudden thunderstorms in the cloud. Technology has cast every conceivable shade of differentiation and adoption onto the green movement, and those shades change as the sun rises and falls. The healthcare industry is fibrilating with new trends-within-the-trend every day, through developments from online health vaults to increased liability risks.
While it may not be described or even recognized as such, the sea change that is mounting in 2010 is a new emphasis on reporting, a factor at least as important as the writing aspect. An examination of nine current trends in content itself reveals the new essential role that has evolved for reporting in content development:
- Content farms: Sometimes considered a scourge because of the massive amounts of dull, substandard-quality articles they produce, content farms are collections of thousands of writers who crank out thousands of articles every day so that “information” Web sites can sell ads around them. The content of the writing is less important than having the stable of reporters who can collect information and turn out the words.
- Content curation: Curation of content is much like curation of art objects or books. It involves people who sort through current and past content to bring forward the most valuable content relating to sets of criteria and subject matter. The TopRank online marketing blog has this to say about content curation: “Blending a mix of new content with the filtering and management of other useful information streams is a productive and manageable solution for providing prospective customers a steady stream of high-quality and relevant content. Pure creation is demanding. Pure automation doesn’t engage. Content curation can provide the best of both.” Essentially, curation is the process that reporters and editors go through in collecting information, sorting it all out, and presenting it (in writing) so that it’s relevant to their audiences. Through feeds, channels, links and other means, content curators are reporting to their audiences the content they feel will be most valued.
- Hyper-localization: Hyper-local newspapers may print dozens or hundreds of editions, relying on the reporting of citizen journalists. To these publishers, presence on the scene or in the community trumps sophisticated writing skills. Reporting is king in a hyper-localized world.
- Real-time news streams: On blogs of conventional and alternative media, reporters are posting updates on breaking news stories in real time, whether they relate to a crucial Congressional hearing or the progress on capping an out-of-control undersea oil well. Some analysts expect streaming news elements to become a crucial part of traditional news sources in the near future.
- Aggregated stories: “Reporters” are aggregating all types of content onto a single home page for a specific topic. For example, the Washington Post carried comprehensive coverage of health care reform, with a page becoming a portal to news, feature, opinion, people, resources, images, video and graphics. The concept is to find and bring together related content/facts into a rich multimedia experience, a job more closely resembling reporting than writing alone.
- Marketers as reporters: Marketers are producing their own print publications, often containing information on trends in a particular industry or business segment. The process begins with basic reporting and news gathering to create thought leadership, which is ultimately expressed as writing.
- Video: Video segments and shows are rapidly becoming as popular as written content online, not only because they are entertaining but also because they provide “visual reporting” of today’s trends, human-interest stories, breaking news and demonstrations.
- Smarter, more mindful readers: A revolt of sorts against the excesses of hyper-consumerism is underway. Shoppers want more information about products and services so they can make more mindful, purposeful decisions. They want simpler, more straightforward content without the hype and flash. In other words, they are placing first priority on gathering and reporting facts, comparative benefits, and the impacts of the products they buy.
- Keyword search: Even the process of search-engine optimization is one of exploring the habits of individuals to find what target audiences are thinking—i.e., reporting—to find the most popular (trending) keywords.
Excellent writing skills are a crucial talent for any PR practitioner, but good writing first demands good information-gathering that is relevant to specific audiences.
PR professionals need to engage in more reporting if they intend for the content they produce to be relevant in a world of citizen reporters. While interviewing client-company contacts indeed is important to creating content, we should focus even more sharply on interviewing the target audiences of a communications feature or campaign. The information gathered will enable us to frame our messaging around today’s trends that content readers are scampering to learn about.
As would any good reporter, we should contact multiple sources—consumers, local businesses, local columnists, national thought leaders, analysts and any of dozens of other sources– to find out “what target audiences want to know” and frame “what we want to tell them” (our messages) in terms that are rooted in the hot buttons, preferences and interests of the audience.
By practicing great reporting, we will generate greater content—and the result will be more contented clients.