The world of media distribution services is a murky one if you’re not familiar with the arena. It deals with the distribution of press releases and the monitoring of media coverage, whilst also maintaining up-to-date and excellent knowledge of key journalists and what they are likely to write about.
The industry has changed since it first began. This is hardly surprising, given that its roots lie as far back as 1880, when William Durrant recognised that reputation could make or break a person and built the first press monitoring business for actors and the aristocracy.
‘The beginning was a long time ago!’ says Ciara Jordan, senior vice president, global operations at Cision, which acquired Gorkana in 2014. (The old Durrants business is now also part of the Cision stable.)
‘There has been a lot of change in both the media world and in the way media is monitored. In that time, the media world has expanded, fragmented and media content now comes from many different sources.
‘In response, monitoring has had to change and monitoring services have evolved to encompass a much wider range of content, from online to broadcast, user-generated content to media owned publications. It has developed technology to become more efficient with coverage at scale and keep up with the needs of business, brands and communicators.’
But it doesn’t always take 137 years for change to happen. The advent of the Internet took the world of media monitoring from CD-ROMs to vast media databases available online.
‘Almost everything about the wire has changed,’ says Raschanda Hall, director of global media relations at Business Wire. ‘When Business Wire started in 1961 we were sending to 16 media points in Northern California via teletype and sometimes hand delivery. Today we’re reaching not only media all over the world, but investors, bloggers, analysts, influencers and consumers as well. I’d venture to say most of the people I work with now have probably never seen or used a teletype machine for work in PR.
‘Today, our content is delivered in newsrooms in myriad ways, via patented technologies like our NewsExpress service, but also through user preferred platforms like email, social media and sometimes fax. For us, it’s always been important to provide content to our users in the format and via the platform they prefer.’
Dan Griffiths, managing director at ResponseSource, charts similarly the history of media distribution services as starting with post before moving to fax and then, finally, email.
‘Email remains the most prevalent distribution channel of news to the media, and most preferred by the media,’ he says. ‘Various social media channels are available, but this hasn’t supplanted email.’
‘Change happens more slowly than people think,’ says Paul Miller, head of digital at Vuelio. ‘Email has existed for almost half a century. In the last few years (post-2009 really) it’s been a process of consolidation – all the game-changing new media emerged prior to that, albeit the ramifications are still working themselves out in newsrooms and comms departments.
Automation – artificial intelligence directed communications, say – is the next wave, but I’d imagine there’ll be a false dawn before that really starts to impact.’
ResponseSource, however, deals less with distribution and more with databases and the evolution there is a longer story. Griffiths lists four stages to its development.
‘Pre-digital, media outlets and editorial contact data could be obtained from printed media directories. Some print directories are still published now. [In the early digital era, it moved onto] software with periodic updates – possibly with data updates delivered on CD-ROM. In the early Internet age, media contact databases evolved into an online ‘software as a service’ subscription product.
‘Currently, developments in technology make for faster media databases with improved searching. The adoption of social media by many journalists has increased the number of data points that need to be researched. The emergence of bloggers and social media influencers extends the possible scope of media databases.’
Indeed, there is a lot more for media monitoring companies to cover, with the rise of bloggers and social media stars meaning that journalists are no longer the sole holders of the key when it comes to reputation.
‘Monitoring initially had to evolve to cover the development of media like broadcast and online,’ explains Jordan. ‘It now covers the growth of social media – from bloggers to the new wave of influencers and platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. The ongoing challenge is for media monitoring to continue to cover all the places where brands, their business and reputations can be discussed and influenced.’
‘From a media database perspective there is more data to maintain,’ says Griffiths. ‘Digital has lowered the cost barriers to entry in publishing (no actual printing required) resulting in a proliferation of online outlets and increased dynamism. So there’s much more going on to keep track of.’
People are still trying to work out the right communications mix for their market,’ says Miller. ‘Obviously social media was sold as a magic bullet for so long, and while there are plenty of benefits it’s by no means a cure all – there is still a place for emails and wire services and the rest, it’s about working out the balance for each individual organisation within each market. You can drill down infinitely on this – what’s the best way to reach a particular influencer? What’s the best way to reach that influencer at 3pm on Wednesday in mid-August? And what’s the value of that against cutting out the middle man and relying on owned content?’
The notion of influencers is changing but so too is the format of press releases. ‘We are spending quite a bit of time watching the rise of mobile platforms and the growing influence of visuals,’ says Hall. ‘Mobile phones allow consumers to consume news and information on demand. This is actually a major benefit to newswires. It allows us to meet a growing need to make news available on demand, regardless of where the client is looking.’
Hall also notes that, whilst public relations and news traditionally focus on creating text-based content, more than three in five people globally are visual learners. ‘Interactive multimedia is one of the most exciting developments in news consumption,’ Hall explains. ‘We know incorporating images can make a huge difference in how well news is embraced. Compelling images and videos make you want to know more about a subject, issue, place or product.
‘With interactive or layered multimedia you can tell the viewer more without them having to look elsewhere. When readers hover over the image, touchpoints are revealed and a simple click or tap exposes more information. This means viewers are engaging with your content longer and increases the potential for conversion.’
It is not only the content, but also the speed in which it is produced that has changed the way media services work. ‘People got their news from just a couple of sources and it was delivered once or twice a day,’ says Hall. ‘Now consumers expect news to be real-time and available on demand and that is exactly what we are doing. The news hole we fill runs 24/7, 365 days a year.
‘There is increased scrutiny, too, on accurate information about journalists, given the constant change in media landscape. Griffiths also highlights increased data protection requirements as a challenge faced by the industry, though he says that changes are ‘welcome’.
Hall agrees. ‘Another big change we’ve seen is the increased focus on security. Security is essential in delivering the market-moving news. On that front, the technology behind what we do continues to evolve to meet the demands of meeting disclosure in countries across the globe.’
It is hoped that the new improved services will be good for journalists too as well as communicators. ‘We launched Roxhill partly in response to the problems people have been having in this space,’ says Michael Davies, director at Roxhill Media.
‘There are more and more press releases chasing fewer and fewer journalists. People are being too broad-brush in their approach. There is no recognition in those sectors that journalists were interested in what is sent to them. We shed light on topics on what journalists actually want to write about.’
This means, for Davies, discovering ‘an ecosystem’ of interest around a certain topic, such as fracking, which will be covered by energy sector journalists as well as some who work in politics, due to the politically charged nature of the topic. ‘Using research tools you can understand more about what the media you’re targeting covers and cares about,’ says Hall.
‘Whether [communicators] are using database services that mine all of this information or doing their own online research it’s never been easier to gather this information. By the time you pitch a reporter you should be able to confidently convey an idea that is relevant, timely and on target for them and their audience.’
‘Journalists need to feel reassured that PRs do the legwork,’ Davies continues. ‘To stand out you’ve got to do a lot more. Take an active interest in an area. These things are so often axiomatic but, for instance, just read the publication. At Roxhill, we help with that process.’
Reading a publication from France might give one or two communicators pause, however. Increased globalisation could mean that many brands have to further their scope beyond looking at the media that exists in their home market.
‘Brands need to know what is happening at a local level, but they also need the ability to address the impact of coverage on their business at a global level,’ says Jordan. ‘For instance, coverage in a title in France can have an impact which is no longer restricted to one country – customers come to us for both local and international coverage.’
‘The UK media services sector is crowded and competitive,’ adds Griffiths. ‘Further consolidation is possible. Many providers are attempting to differentiate using bundling of services and offering international reach.’
‘I think the challenge now is the same as it has been for a long time,’ says Hall.
‘It’s the competition for attention, and dwindling attention spans. Journalists and news consumers alike have so many choices for finding news. As a provider of news distribution, we want to help get more relevant eyes on our client’s content. There is steep competition to secure your position in the news-gathering process for journalists and content producers. You have to constantly explore and educate clients on best practices for reaching media and you have to keep their needs top of mind.’
In order to tackle this particular problem, Business Wire has moved beyond distribution services, hosting webinars and conducting surveys, as well as writing blogs and white papers, to share information intended to help clients create better content. It is not merely a case anymore of pushing out any old information and hoping it sticks.
Search engine optimisation could help too but it is education that is the key. ‘The practice of sending press releases to hubs of generalised content in order to build back-links has been counter-productive for some time,’ says Miller, ‘but I think the way this approach was initially sold to more traditional communications professionals seldom involved a whole lot of education – meaning that now understanding why that approach doesn’t work, while other aspects of content distribution do help, at the same as keeping on top of relevant changes to search engine algorithms… this is extremely challenging, and continual education is required.’
With the media landscape constantly changing, from the increase in publishers to wider availability, media monitoring services have clearly taken on a daunting task. But they’ve been adapting since 1880; it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop now.