Earlier today, I was just about to cross Broad St. in Philadelphia when I noticed that the stoplight had frozen, causing near gridlock at an intersection on Philly’s busiest avenue. Just then, a woman I had never met asked me to do something I have done professionally hundreds of times.
Exasperated, she pointed up to the stoplight and the backed-up traffic. “We’ve tried calling 911, but nothing’s happened. Can you call the news stations to let them know about this? Maybe they can get something done.”
In her plea, I heard the voices of dozens of clients and colleagues from the past saying, “we should reach out to the media about this…”
Ten years ago, I would have enthusiastically agreed, knowing that this was my time to shine as a PR professional. “YES! I can do that, ma’am, in fact that’s what I do every day!”
But today, I assured her I’d do something, even if it wasn’t calling the radio stations. Instead, as I walked away from the honking horns and frozen stoplights, I tweeted to Philadelphia Police and Philly’s remarkable 311 service.
By the time I reached the end of the block, I had received confirmations from both organizations via Twitter that they were working on it. The Philadelphia Police told me “the traffic engineers are on the case.” @Philly311 even tweeted back to me with the reference number for the request to fix the stoplights.
The ability to directly reach the parties who could actually get things done — and get a quick response — is new for the vast majority of people. And it should change how communications and PR think about the media.
Ultimately, here’s the reason I didn’t call the radio stations: I didn’t have to.
It made me think about Ezra Klein’s spot-on blog post from this weekend about how sources are cutting out the middle of the traditional influence cycle: the media.
If you’re a communications pro — or anyone with an interest in the influence of media — I strongly recommend checking it out. The gist is that the value equations of media have changed from being the exclusive channel for reaching target audiences to being an intermediary step that’s helpful and important, but no longer universally required for changing behaviors.
So, what does this mean for organizations looking to influence audiences? Here’s my take:
- Get direct. Become your own media organization, with media-level quality content that essentially gets your story across without the need to convince over-burdened newsrooms to cover it. That’s part of the idea behind brand journalism.
- Foster connections on the ground. If you have members, volunteers or — in some cases, even employees — encourage them to bring your messages directly to the audiences you want to motivate. And work with them to develop your content.
- Justify your PR. Outreach to media is still a very effective tactic, but think carefully about how and when you use it to make sure it’s justified. Will it reach the right people and motivate them?Are you using it in conjunction with your social media? A lot of time gets wasted on developing the wrong pitch for the wrong news organizations.
Of course, all of the advocacy and communications work in the world don’t mean much if they don’t get the job done. In this case, I’ll be checking tomorrow to see if the stoplights actually get fixed. And if they aren’t fixed, you’ll be the third to know — right after Philly 311 and the Police Department.
Have you used social media outreach instead of traditional media outreach? How’d that work out for you? Let me know in the comments.