'pr is dead... and just for good measure newspapers are dead too'

There's been a discussion recently on the future of communications and pr. But as this post shows it's also wrapped up in the future of journalism too.

by Eddie Coates-Madden

When invited by Dave Windass, leader of the FdA in Digital Media Journalism and BA (Hons) Journalism & Digital Media courses at Hull School of Art and Design to address a conference - Journalism Day - on the future of journalism some weeks ago, I thoughtlessly said 'yes'. I said yes because Dave's a really top bloke, and we try to support him when we can, because I'm mostly happy to help, and I assumed it was to be a low-key local affair.

Two days before the 'gig', I found out I was closing the show, and following Martin Bell, Alastair Brett (the former Legal Director of Times Newspaper Ltd) political journalist David Torrance, and BskyB's senior news editor Dave Betts, and frankly it all got a bit 'squeaky bum time', as I believe Manchester’s old people say.

So I did what I knew I had to do. Dressing it up as, 'Eddie's talk seeks to ask questions about the future of news, and to raise what he thinks might be the challenges for both local authorities and journalists in the modern world', I went for provocation and told 200 journalists that 'Public Relations Is Dead'. The first refuge of the scoundrel.

Oh, and - just for good measure - that newspapers are dead too. Or at least damned close to it.

I tried to be a bit more sophisticated than that. Whether I succeeded is perhaps a matter for those who were there, but the feedback was pretty good.

I started by suggesting that HMV, Blockbuster, and Jessop's did not go under because nobody wants music, movies or photos any more. They failed because a tipping point was reached as a critical number of customers - but not all - stopped wanting physical product and the shops became unsustainable.

Then I showed them this video

And because (in the same way) it won't take until the last person who has the Times ironed at breakfast to die,  for papers reach that same tipping point, I told them newspapers were dead too.

But I also said that there is probably a growing demand for news brands and journalism. Customers have online access to so much more than the one paper they used to buy each day, and use it.

I went on. What we increasingly know about customers is that few much care about The Council (capital T capital C) any more, if they ever did. They care about those parts of it that touch their lives; the road closure, the school closure, the theatre ticket, the bin collection. And I implied that may be true for news items too. Customers have become information nomads, choosing where to find out about and access services. And as more and more services are online they have become online nomads too. And that means we have to communicate and deliver services across those online choices.

I suggested that local government has to learn that the massive range of online tools that customers can use,  along with their own presence online, means that they are connected. Not just council to customers, but customers back to councils and to each other. All of it connected. The days when we could send a one-size-fits-all council 'magazine' have gone. Customers want granular. They want the information, news, service, and events that they are interested in; not an homogenous communications department idea of what they might want, or worse, should have.

And in that connected space, customers write back, and bite back, making us all accountable in a way we have to get used to, and learn to learn from. I talked about Julie Burchill, Jan Moir, the News Of The World, Urban Outfitters and Amazon and how the accountability that connectedness enables is as much an issue for news brands and journalists as for anyone else. It is not without its challenges - not least to ideas of freedom of expression, and whether we have a right not to be offended - but it is happening anyway.

And before I demanded they follow him on twitter, I talked about the changes in behaviour we need in our  communications teams, and quoted Dan Slee that …

"A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.

"A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant."

And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that  broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done - to personal safety.

And then, to end, I introduced them to Emer Coleman and read them two bits of her recent post:

"There are those who seek to uphold their own silos and empires even though they don’t face the electorate at the ballot box... Remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill struggling to deal with a new generation who swallowed the red one years ago" and:

"If I have to name a sector to whom I want to give a special shout out then it has to be to the journalists that I have worked with over the past year... They have been amazing critical friends. They have not offered an easy ride but they are not the stereotype of “gotcha” either. If the mantra of of Silicon Valley is “you have to collaborate to compete” then my mantra for government and media is that we have to “collaborate to comprehend."

Then I finished with what I hoped was good advice. As well as suggesting they take the red pill, I went with a Facebook meme attributed to Gandhi, and with Emer. Like you do.

I told them I thought they should,

"Never apologise for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you're right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.

"Be yourself. Collaborate to comprehend."

And they clapped and they were nice, and I left. But not before I got my photograph taken with Martin Bell, even though he did confess that he had not understood half of the words I'd used.

Eddie Coates-Madden is communications and marketing manager at Hull City Council. This blog was first posted here.

Picture credit.