In My Opinion: Moray Macdonald: The ‘engagement era’ has changes for us all

THE accelerating ‘makeover’ of society’s use of digital technology and processes has created a shift in the publishing and news business that is, in equal parts, amazing and disorienting.

Amazing, in that the shift creates almost unlimited opportunity to communicate in new ways. Disorienting, in that, personally and professionally, the lack of limits and understood-standards add layers of complexity to the way those of us in the business comfortably operate.

And it’s an industry in constant and significant flux. Of course, the business of news distribution has always been at the forefront of societal and technical innovation. But the players involved today are of a different size and shape than those of the past: venture capitalists, technologists, social scientists, brand-builders, new-age journalists and agent provocateurs are all in the game – one that is blurring the rules many of us are accustomed to working by.

Entrepreneurially-minded people are collectively creating new models around media and engagement, one innovation at a time.

There are examples everywhere we look. BuzzFeed and Huffington Post are establishing new social dynamics of content creation and distribution. The editorial production overhaul at Forbes, now 1,000 contributors strong, repositions a legacy media brand as an information network that also happens to publish a magazine. Perhaps most importantly, pioneering brands are becoming fully-fledged publishers, addressing unfulfilled interest niches in media and filling them with their own editorial products.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re struggling to grasp how fundamental this transition is, consider this: According to Pew Research, the top 25 news organisations saw a 17 per cent increase in annual site traffic as more eyeballs scoured more digital. Follow the money, and a different picture comes into focus.

A Paid Content report, meanwhile, listed the 50 most successful digital media companies based on revenue from digital products. Only three incumbent media companies made the Top Ten list (Bloomberg, Thompson Reuters, Reed Elsevier) and only two news publishers were identified in the top 50 (Gannett and DMGT). The rest? A wide array of technology companies, and other organisations that don’t fit our established categories.

Technology has changed the game again, in a remarkably short period of time.

If you’re a marketing or PR leader, your job is to make sure your teams fall on the right side of a widening digital divide between innovators and procrastinators.

This year, that divide will become serious business.

Make it a priority to have invention, and reinvention, as the centrepiece of your strategy.

You must understand what the changes mean, be cognisant of the challenges of aligning your communications function to an ever-changing array of technology solutions and design agility into everything you do, together with a fresher, smarter creative approach to how you do it.

Any reinvention of the media has an immediate knock-on effect for those that purport to serve it.

PR and marketing teams need an immediate understanding of what the changes are and how they impact upon the organisation’s ability to engage with key stakeholders in a relevant and effective way.

We at Weber Shandwick cannot emphasise the significance of engagement enough. As technology has shifted the very notion of media beyond established boundaries, so the form and function of those media must evolve with it. Reporting has morphed to become commenting, writing has fused with producing and the story lifecycle has become ever-more drawn-out and complex.

The avenues for change for organisations and the media are abundant, and highly disruptive. If approached opportunistically, the reinvention of media provides organisations with unprecedented innovation and leadership potential.

But failure to adapt could result in your organisation being ignored.

That is a real challenge for us in the PR and communications industry, as well as for traditional media and news organisations.

Moray Macdonald is managing director of Weber Shandwick Scotland, which last week sponsored the Scotsman Conferences event, The Future of the Media in Scotland. This is a version of his opening remarks at the conference.