Even PR people don’t understand content marketing

Jul 6, 2016Original Thinking

Here’s a true story about a content marketer who got into a minor squabble with a PR rep.

The marketer wrote an article for a client’s publication that related their subject matter to a popular TV show. Like any traditional reporter would, the marketer reached out to the major TV network’s PR department to get permission to use an official photo in the article. Here’s a paraphrased version of the conversation:

Content marketer: Hi, I’m reaching out from this site, which publishes this and this, and we’re writing an article that relates to your show. Would you be able to provide us with some photos for this piece?

PR rep: OK, but we only provide materials to the media.

CM: Right, this would be for editorial purposes only.

PR: Sorry, that’s not our protocol. We wouldn’t consider this a media outlet.

CM: OK, I’m not sure I understand why. You are probably familiar with sites like this, such as those published by CasperRed Bull and United Airlines, which all create content as do traditional media outlets. Many of them employ professional journalists. I’m a former newspaper reporter myself.

PR: Since Casper, Red Bull and United Airlines, etc. are brands, and not editorial outlets, any coverage they created would not be considered editorial – even if it is written that way.

That might sound like a reasonable exchange to some people, but it illustrates that this PR rep doesn’t fully understand how the media landscape is changing. And that’s a problem as content marketers struggle for legitimacy. If content marketers aren’t given the same permissions as traditional media, that just presents another barrier preventing them from being perceived as journalists.

It’s likely that many, if not practically all, PR departments now need to specifically define what they mean as “the media.” Most probably define it like the Supreme Court defined porn in the 1960s: “We know it when we see it.” Clearly, that’s not good enough.

You would have thought they would have already done this back when blogging and citizen journalism became popular, but maybe bloggers are far easier to differentiate from a company that sells razors and also happens to have a culture magazine that writes about TV shows.

That said, it’s also probable that most content marketers wouldn’t reach out to a PR department, instead ripping an image off Google or opting for a stock image. Maybe PR reps simply haven’t fielded enough calls from media-supported enterprises to feel like they need a policy. It’s certainly possible, because plenty of content marketers view it as an unnecessary headache to actually act like journalists.

This presents a bizarre scenario, in which people in the same marketing departments might not fully understand or respect what people on different teams are doing. Media relations professionals, like those from the anecdote above, may have people in the same building producing content marketing, and yet they’re undermining the credibility of that practice.

No one benefits in this situation. Organizations miss out on positive press coverage, while content marketers are deterred from doing the right thing.

Or, maybe this is all just a rite of passage for content marketers to truly be recognized as journalists. After all, are you really a journalist if you don’t occasionally fight with PR departments?