No 2006 PR predictions but a thought on fragmentation…

I have in the past used the Yuletide period to provide a whole range of predictions on what’s going to happen over the next twelve months. You’ll be relieved to know that I’m going to skip it this year.

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, there are a whole range of people already publishing predictions and to be honest they’ve put a lot more thought into the matter than I have. Secondly, I don’t have anything particularly insightful to offer on my last predictions!

However, there is one trend I wanted to share. A trend that I believe will have major repercussions for PR not only in 2006 but probably for five years beyond that. That trend is fragmentation.

The media landscape is changing in every market and geography. We’re seeing major changes in trade journals, national newspapers, business magazines, local freesheets and online media. These changes have an impact on our profession and they are closely related to the other great fragmentation taking place: how people find and share information.

Good communication begins with the audience. If you want to inform an audience you must understand how they like to receive information, what influences their behaviour, how do they use the information they receive ?

In the past, using technology as an example, you could pick the five top trade magazines and be sure that you’d reach at least twenty percent (and maybe more) of your target market. You knew which magazines were best to reach CIOs, developers, IT managers etc. While those same trade magazines, even with shrinking staff numbers, are still vitally important – and on a personal level I am a big fan of trade media – people now have a variety of information sources. The question for you, as a PR professional is do you know what they are ?

People are more selective these days. They want information where and when it suits them. If you don’t know where and when then you are running the risk of an ineffective campaign. How well do you understand the changes taking place in your media outlets? What other sources are your audience using ?

I believe that today our profession cannot answer these questions. We still operate in a mass-communication environment – and while it still works, I believe its effectiveness is slowly being eroded. Be clear, I am not one of the scaremongerers. I believe that the traditional media still has a vital and mainstream role to play and will in the future. But I think we all realize there are other media becoming increasingly important and we must embrace those as well. It’s one of the reasons why PR people are quickly seeing the potential of blogs as a communications medium. Contrary to what some of the bloggerati would have you believe, PR’s adoption of blogs is taking place rapidly, but blogs aren’t the total answer. In fact we can expect the fragmentation to continue for some time and we will undoubtedly be left with a combination of traditional media along with face-to-face and online communication.

There is no one single answer to fragmentation, but I believe there’s a way of navigating the changes that are taking place and that starts, as it always should, with our audience.

To understand the changing landscape, we must understand how people in your audience are finding and using information. Magazine rate cards are no longer a sufficient means of surveying an audience. Instead we must obtain primary knowledge of the audience. Only when we begin to understand the changes that are taking place can we truly make PR an effective means of reaching the mainstream audience.

To begin we should start to reach out to customers, meet them, add PR-related questions to customer outreach. Why not set up an customer audience group where individuals give first hand advice on how and why they like to receive information. This would provide useful data on an ongoing basis highlighting changes in behaviour and unearthing new media. Using other online tools such as search engines, web site statistics etc. also provides useful information sources.

There’s no silver bullet to fragmentation, the starting point is to be aware of it. For many industries the trade media will remain the single most important element, for others the balance will shift. They key is to get a good understanding of what’s happening in your audience.

Oh and before I forget, let me wish all of you a happy and a prosperous New Year!