How is the media industry responding to an age of social distancing?

By Adam Taylor, Director of Media Relations, Cicero/AMO

From a media perspective, perhaps the biggest question during this lockdown and time of social distancing is – what on earth are Sky Sports News talking about?

While Sky Sports and BT Sport subscribers will now know that they can pause subscriptions, replay highlights of FA Cup Finals from yesteryear, and ‘relive’ the Ashes – it’s quite possibly not worth the extra £40 a month.

But just as retailers no longer have customers coming through their doors, media are quickly reshaping what they can broadcast and publishers in an attempt to retain ‘eyes’ and advertisers.

In our industry, we are not only noticing how we are personally changing our media habits, but we are also beginning to ask what things may look like when things do return to some sort of normal. Not least for ourselves, but for clients too.

Print

The Metro, the free newspaper distributed across the transport network, is the UK’s most read national. Yet, most of the population is no longer using public transport. Do people go on the Metro website like they may pick up a copy on the bus? I doubt it. Likewise, City AM, the London commuter financial, has stopped printing and gone digital until further notice. 80% of its reporters have been furloughed too, how do we interact with journalists if they’re not currently responding to emails? Reach plc, owners of The Mirror and Daily Express, as well as the Daily Mail have warned how COVID-19 will affect the print circulation and financial performance of those titles. Is this short term or a faster decline in print?

While most journalists, editors and proprietors are proud of the print product, keeping up with a situation such as the coronavirus demonstrates the real time limits of print over digital. For weekly publications, especially in the regional and local media, it is even more telling. I have found on the latter in recent weeks that many staff are furloughed or unwell, placing an even greater burden on the ability to report. This is even before you expect the customer to go out and buy the publication. It’s a bit like online and mobile banking, once you get into the swing of it, you’re less inclined to go to the local branch. Just as I borrow my mum’s Sky and BT logins, she uses my Times login.

The question to which I don’t yet have an answer to is at what point over the coming years do more newspapers go digital first? Or even digital all-in? The FT does it well, along with excellent business emails, podcasts and video contents. At what point does or can everyone else? Some dailies where there is little difference to what may be read in another tabloid or the BBC may struggle. Models have changed significantly over the past 15 years, but we should expect even more in the years ahead.

Likewise, what wins from a PR perspective? We are seeing lots of visibility from organisations demonstrating their immediate response to customers, staff and third parties. What makes you relevant in future and what’s your strategy thereafter? I look back on some of things that used to work for clients five years ago that just don’t work now. What are you doing and saying that is interesting to a wider audience? What are you adding for the journalist that makes a reader want to subscribe?

Broadcast

It’s clear that the broadcasters are having ‘a good war’. From a news perspective, 27 million people watched Prime Minister Johnson’s lockdown address. That’s more than the final episode of Only Fools and Horses! It’s also boomtime for daily bulletins across BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4. Even the religious broadcasters too. The most noticeable difference from all this coverage is the use of Skype and Facetime. This is not unusual, given the quality of audio and visual coverage from smartphones, it seems daft that some broadcasters prefer to have certain interviews done from broadcast studios. Viewers understand the current situation and have adapted well, in the main. It won’t happen for all interviews, but I’d expect this format to stick.

From a PR perspective, I’ve never had the opportunity to have the time to listen to and watch so many stations and mediums. BBC radio – particularly FiveLive, LBC and many, many podcasts. Not as much TalkSport as normal, but likewise, as people aren’t commuting or going to the gym, streaming services are down too.

Perhaps, the most noticeable outcome has been the victory for public service broadcasting. In an era of fake news and disintermediation, it’s clear that in times of trouble and angst, people do revert to what they know and trust. With a licence fee renegotiation, the BBC is in a strong position. The post-election boycotts from the government, seem distant and trivial.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Those sat watching BBC Breakfast and GMB now, will at some point be back on the bike, train, bus or car commuting. Broadcasters will be able to go out filming on location and of course the production companies who’ll be able to make content to fill the airtime, currently occupied by Corona and most significantly, we will see a return to live sport.

The biggest winner from a PR perspective are the experts. The clients we have up our sleeve that are insolvency practitioners to corporate treasurers to mental health champions to how I can get a refund from EasyJet. It’s back to basics, but as people will know, once you’ve been on one programme, it’s likely you’ll be asked to go others. It is of course, how you build on that.

Social media:

This isn’t a post to say that more that people will get their news from Facebook or Twitter, but it’s easy to see what business and organisations are saying through their own channels.

Everyone has received emails from CEOs to update customers on what they’re doing and a willingness to engage. Yes, marketing emails are self-indulgent by their nature, but they give you a platform to share thoughts, updates and content.

Nothing of course, is Gospel, and I don’t think you can spoon feed direct messaging and people will buy it. It does though give you a window into an organisation with content that is shareable and takes you into wider conversations.

And finally:

I’ve always made the argument that from a corporate PR point of view, a victory in today’s market is blurry for some eyes. This is not ignoring reputational and crisis management, where there is an obvious need to be acting and responding to journalist enquiries along with investor and customer concerns.

We all love that CEO interview on Sky and that customer case study in the Mail. Yet, everything is now visible. Once upon a time, consumers would watch one news bulletin and buy one newspaper. Now PR clippings, social media and direct to customer engagement means that everyone sees everything. I see companies and acquaintances sharing ‘branded content’ or links on their social media. I see multiple emails throughout the day from news organisations highlighting other front pages and stories in other outlets that you should read.

The news world is far more fluid and open. There may be a few casualties along the way and it may be more acute in the coming few months, but I don’t see it changing how we do things. As ever, adapt and move forward.

Get in Touch

Adam Taylor

Director of Media Relations