Pitching to AI news editors at Microsoft, Murdoch closes papers, and leveraging virtual events

By Jim James,
Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

The "EASTWEST" in EASTWEST Public Relations originally signified the mission of helping Western companies get into Asia, with access to Asia as the strapline. At the time it was founded which was pre-internet, the business model was that it was cheaper for companies to contract an agency than it was for them to use a fax machine to multiple media outlets in Asia. Quite quickly, however, that changed. Now, the media is local and global at the same time, thanks to technology that. In this disintegration of traditional structures of the media, the role of PR has to change too, necessitating that EASTWEST PR pivot as well. The company mission is no longer about helping companies go from west to east or east to west, but it’s about sharing best practices from around the world. The focus is now on "digital storification," how to make the story about the brand and something that audiences are able to consistently see in credible formats and on channels they are engaged with.

AI is replacing humans

News, as it happens around the world, is delivered to desktops or phones in real time. Recently, Rupert Murdoch in Australia has decided to shut down over 100 newspapers. Murdoch owns newspapers in the UK and the US as well. A Denver Post journalist was laid off while on assignment. The news of cuts being led by an Australian impacting Americans in small towns can reach the UK via a phone, tablet, or desktop. On the same day comes news from Microsoft in America that they are now laying off 20-30 journalists that were curating the content for the MSN news, and they will be replaced with artificial intelligence, which will just simply scoop up the media stories and allocate them to certain content syndication engines and populate the content management system. There are tool sets like Scoop which track the internet for relevant news and bring it as a news feed. This is not dissimilar to the old RSS, and it was almost inevitable that, eventually, the manual labor of cutting and pasting stories from one place to another will be replaced by technology. Some journalists even quip that this is the technology they’ve been writing about. Now it has, indeed, taken their jobs. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the world’s largest media companies now are not publishers; they are technology companies. If you think about it, all the big publishers, including people like News Corporation, who are nowhere near as powerful as they used to be, have been supplanted by companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, in China Tencent, in Japan, and Korea as well. Even Yahoo, for example in Japan, became very large with SoftBank supporting them.

The traditional news networks that have been independent have really suffered as well, but the ones that are surviving are the state-owned ones. Even those like the BBC are under pressure, and their license fee may be cut because the Conservative Party are questioning their survival and their independence, whether they really do deserve a grant that everybody should pay for even though they may have never even watched or listened to the BBC. In China, the state grants the licenses to the media, while TV and radio are all state-owned. In Singapore, it’s the same. Even though they are positioned as independent publishers, Media Corp. for example, the Straits Times come under government supervision. 

In other markets, state-run news organisations, ironically enough, are more stable than the ones that were supposed to be the free press. The control of the media by the government in places like China and Singapore is sustaining the journalist community. To cope with this insecurity, titles like The Guardian, which is owned by the Scott Trust, are becoming or have become subscription-based. It’s held in trust to ensure editorial integrity, and it is not owned by an individual or shareholders, but by a nonprofit trust. The goal of media like The Guardian is to become trusted and profitable, or at least sustainable, through the subscription model, which is why The Guardian is aiming for some 2 million subscribers by 2023, according to the CEO, David Pemsel. In 2019 alone, they had 650,000 regular payors around the world for both digital and print. 

Douglas McCabe, a media analyst from a firm called Enders Analysis, says that journalists, not just commercial teams, should be incentivised to achieve the targets that people like David Pemsel, the CEO of The Guardian, is trying to achieve. This means that the journalists will ultimately know about the performance of pages and the articles they are writing. There used to be a church and state separation between the advertisers and the editorial. The idea was editorial, then, could be trusted. But if the journalists themselves are starting to be remunerated by the performance of the pages, then they will inevitably be choosing or writing stories that are going to be more sensationalist. It will mean that increasingly,only those companies that can afford to engage media and create that kind of content, along with the journalists, will survive.

Why companies are now turning to PR 

In parts of Asia, certainly in Indochina, the media maintains a semblance of integrity. The advertising has died; the journalists want to continue to be paid, while publishers are saying, “Get what you can from the people who will be providing you the content.” In a way, there was always this uproar that this would be the case, but it’s not really dissimilar to what’s happening now in western titles. They’re realising that the people who should be paying are both the readers and those who want access to those readers. This concept of media integrity has already been questioned by those changing their business models, and that’s impacting how PR is being done. Publishers are going to be looking to PR, and have been for quite some time, to increasingly provide engaging content, because the media survival isn’t necessarily going to be on being a trusted independent platform for discussion. It’s going to be based on content creation, audience engagement, and measurable results. In May, the Association of American Publishers revealed that events revenue is down 60% in the year, with the loss of advertising on print and with the abandonment of all events. Companies like Bloomberg are now pivoting and working to leverage their database of great speakers and research by creating paid events. There are platforms like 24digital, which is a specialist platforms to complement the more general platforms like Zoom. This helps clients create events and participate in virtual events where they would have, in the past, been participating in trade shows or even local fairs. 

The challenge is communicating the storification of the business while bearing in mind the audience groups that are no longer necessarily defined by location, but by profile, and will possibly have quite a short attention span in terms of the content created and its message. In the absence of the independent editorial advisor, which is the role that the publisher and the editor used to play, there isn’t the consistent narrative that these audiences are going to see, and this is true, whether it’s in consumer press or trade press. On social media, big tech companies like Google and Facebook say that all content is equal, but they do not really have interest in the content, only in the page display and the advertising on it, which means that algorithms are now starting to send people news which is more targeted to the news that they’ve seen before. 

The announcement by Microsoft that AI is going to be curating the content and sending it will only amplify this trend. Filters will be removed, which some curators are considering a good story but find unbelievable, similar to how Twitter has been fact-checking some of President Trump’s more recent tweets. If AI becomes the one checking these tweets and not humans, then the result could be stories about a company that may or may not be true. This calls for the need, then, to be proactive and diligent about managing and tracking content, as it’s not enough to simply rely on editors or people to safeguard the best interests of an industry, company, or brand.

Though this really depends on the person, some people have found that they are more productive working from home. People are actually now geography-independent in terms of their concentration and focus, with the main downside being the lack of social interaction that one used to get working at the office. Thus, the challenge is going to be for companies and communicators to build compelling content that’s going to get people to come out of the space where they’re comfortable at home to communicate with the brand, and consequently, to track those interactions and sahre it with others. Going digital means that all PR and all communication has metrics in the same way that sales and customer satisfaction have metrics. As you lay down your plan for the week or for the day, what metrics do you have to measure the performance of your communication? How will you communicate your KPIs to your three sets of audience that is your team members, partners, and customers?

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

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