Tech media expert Sam Whitmore of mediasurvey.com has been producing in-depth analysis of how the pandemic is impacting tech media. A longtime friend of March, Sam sat with us to share how he sees tech media handling the crisis, how coverage has changed, and what PR professionals should expect when they engage reporters during this tense time.
To add the PR perspective, Kelly O’Brien, VP at March, joined the conversation, hosted by Manny Veiga.
Manny Veiga: To start off, I’d like to hear both of your thoughts on how the media and PR professionals are handling the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Sam Whitmore: To focus on one segment of the media, B2B editors and reporters do want as much non-COVID-19 content as they always had before. They still have jobs to do, and their own projects to complete. The issue they face is one of shelf space. One reporter from TechTarget told me, “A product story is like a form of escapism. I can’t get enough of that.” That was interesting to hear.
At the bigger brands—publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—there’s a lot of team reporting going on. Business Insider told me they have two all-hands meetings every day: one is on Coronavirus, and then the other one is on “recession.” I think PR professionals, when pitching tier-one media, might do well to think in two ways. Sure, pitch stories, if you have them. But also pitch nuggets, pitch anecdotes, pitch components for stories that reporters can weave into things like roundups and list articles.
Kelly O’Brien: From the PR side, it’s tough out there right now. It’s encouraging to hear that some of the B2B media and even some of the national and innovation-focused media are ready to hear some non-COVID stories. There may be more opportunities if you connect your news tangentially to COVID. But especially speaking as a consumer of media myself, some of those stories can serve as a nice distraction as well, a bit of a break from the COVID coverage.
There’s also an interesting role that influencers have been playing right now. Many of the bloggers and influencers I follow have been conducting casual surveys of their readers to ask, “Should I continue sharing my usual content? Or do I pause because of COVID?” For the most part, readers have been saying, “Please give me what you usually give me,”—whether it’s about sales or fashion or cooking. Consumers need some relief. And not to mention, they’re at home more these days, and might have more time to explore new interests and passions, like cooking. I read an article today about the demand for things like flour and basic ingredients because of a rise in baking, which I thought was a really fun story. It’s interesting to see these trends appear in the media landscape.
Manny: Sam, how are some of the publications you’re speaking of adjusting to this new reality, particularly from a business perspective? Are they facing new challenges? Are they changing their staffing and the way they assign stories?
Sam: There’s a lot of that going on. Use Business Insider again, as an example. They have 350 reporters around the world, and they’re redeploying them based on changing needs. For example, they have a lot of sports reporters, believe it or not. But for a period of several months, there was nothing to cover in the sports world besides re-runs, so they redeployed the sports reporters to cover beats like finance, real estate, etc. People started working together at these media organizations who hadn’t worked together before.
The traffic on these sites, especially the tier-one publications, is off the charts. However, they can’t monetize it. The reason is that advertisers want to prevent their ads from appearing next to unpleasant topics. So if I’m an advertiser displaying ads on the New York Times, I do not want to be associated with keywords like coronavirus, COVID, or any other negative topics. The big publications are missing out on significant revenue because advertisers are fencing off their content from the biggest COVID stories that happen to be getting lots of traffic. It’s unfortunate and a bit ironic that they’re gaining traffic but losing revenue at the same time.
Manny: Kelly, what are you seeing from the way brands are reacting to the crisis?
Kelly: I’ve been reflecting on that myself as a consumer of media. I realized that I’m mostly touched and inspired when brands respond in ways that touch on three key values: helpful, personal, and purposeful. For one example, New Balance announced that their U.S. factories are now helping to develop, manufacture, and deliver face masks to hospitals. I was struck by the simple way they announced it on social media: “Made shoes yesterday. Making masks today.” That came across as a helpful message.
When it comes to the “personal” value, the CEO of Yum Brands (parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell) committed his 2020 salary to fund a $1,000 bonus to their 1,000+ restaurant general managers, as well as to support a global employee medical relief fund. Their ability to take care of their own people was personal and set a great example in terms of COVID-19 communications.
Lastly, the value of “purposeful.” I think at this point for large brands, being perceived by the public as helpful and personal is the bare minimum. Consumers expect brands to step up in a bigger way, and during COVID-19, that means contributing to relief efforts in a serious way. I’m proud that we recently helped one of our clients, ADUSA and its grocery brands (including Stop & Shop and Food Lion), announce a $10 million donation for their employees in need, their local community hunger relief efforts, and research toward both a COVID-19 vaccine and a cure at three major universities. From a company on the front lines of the food supply chain, that was a meaningful initiative.
Manny: How much should people be pitching non-COVID news right now? Are reporters open to those stories?
Sam: I would repeat what Business Insider’s editor-in-chief said when I asked him that same question. He responded by asking what is in the best interest of his readers. Is there a concrete benefit—not theoretical—for a reader to view that story? It could be as simple as a good laugh, something we could really use right now. Or perhaps it’s focusing on helping people on the front lines. Readers should come away thinking, “I’m really glad I read that.” In a way, that’s no different than at any other time, but it’s even more important now. Make sure you can pass that litmus test before you pitch the story.
Kelly: I can say, for several clients, we have pulled back on some stories. Yet others we’ve decided to move a little more quickly on. Ones that maybe we hadn’t gotten to yet or weren’t priorities suddenly became more authentic and more of a key message right now. So it depends on circumstances, but if you are questioning whether it is the right opportunity, it likely isn’t. Move on to the stories that are right for the moment, and those opportunities will be clearer.
Manny: Any thoughts, big or small, on how this might change the media, the way that journalists are working the way that publications are working?
Sam: I think the rich are going to get richer. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are going to be able to monetize a lot of these new visitors, because they’re giving away free Coronavirus coverage to readers who want it, which is smart. They’ll be able to monetize down the lineand get new subscribers. And then they’ll eventually be able to expand and hire more people. I think there will be a bigger gap between them and the smaller, independent outlets. Similar to how we’ve seen an analogous situation with FAANG right in the tech vendor world. Those companies are always going to get bigger and the gap continues to increase between FAANG and everyone else. I think we’ll see that play out in the media industry in terms of what we call “tier one.”
I also think we’ll see this Renaissance intensify among new podcasts and newsletters and independent outlets, because those media can go deep into topics that people really care about. The thing that I’m concerned about in the PR world is whether your client base will get excited about coverage in those newsletters. I think that collectively, the client base of PR agencies needs to realize these new kinds of influencers are impactful. And that’s the role that PR professionals can play, as counsel to their clients.
Kelly: When I think about media overall, I take a step back. In general, we’re going to see some tremendous innovation coming out of this pandemic, with the isolation or quarantine resulted from that. The two big areas where we’re seeing innovation will be in working remotely and living remotely. When it comes to living remotely, we’re already seeing increased interest from media and consumers in health and wellness tech, as well as telehealth. I think we’ll see the media continue to take interest in telling stories about how innovation helps us adopt these new ways of living. Once we stop talking about the pandemic itself, we’ll shift our focus to the ways technology has adapted and grown in a positive way, and what that means for the future.
Our team tuned into a session yesterday with CNET and they noted an uptick in both wellness and smart home purchases, which both fall under that category of “smart living.” Soon those stories will be amplified even more, post-COVID.
You can catch the full conversation here, on our Hacks & Flack podcast. These trends will continue as long as the public health crisis lasts. Businesses need expert guidance to navigate the changing media landscape. Need extra support? Reach out to March!
Note: responses were edited for clarity and brevity.