Are Indian PR professionals ready for today’s digital journalists?

Earlier this month, Tinu Cherian Abraham, a software engineer, entered a Twitter contest named #MyKaipocheDream, for a chance to drive a Mercedes car each for three people for the weekend. Even though Tinu Cherian's was the top trending tweet, he did not win the contest. 

Tinu, a software engineer with Juniper Networks, who is a very active social media enthusiast and online ‘influencer’, then proceeded to tag Mercedes Benz India and another luxury car maker with a request for a car for the weekend: “To my surprise, Mercedes Benz India actually sent me a beautiful Mercedes SLK 350 convertible, all the way from Pune to Bangalore, to be enjoyed for an entire weekend. Happy with this sweet gesture by Mercedes, I tweeted about it in detail with the hashtag #Merc4Weekend and shared photos and the experience on Twitter and Facebook, which triggered quite a buzz on social media and was even featured in newspapers.”

This is the power of social media, where an alert social PR gaze converted a potentially miffed influencer into a strong brand ambassador for the weekend. India is one of the largest media universes in the world with an estimated 99 million newspaper readers and at least an estimated main 20 television news channels with powerful regional channels as well. Today, PR professionals in India are grappling with not just engaging with this massive list of media professionals but also with the key question of whether the digital journalist is really where the main focus should be.

Senior editor and technology columnist N Madhavan, Hindustan Times, says the biggest change that the journalist today is facing is the challenge of “being relevant in the age of instant and direct connect between people who used to be sources and the reader/viewer. Twitter/social media are breaking the barrier between source and consumer of news, and also making it all instant.”

Does this mean that that a well written pitch is more welcome today than ever before? Madhavan says, “Yes and brief, focused pitches that are tailored for reporters based on their roles.”

And given the shrinking time that journalists now Madhavan offers this succinct advise while dealing with the hyper busy journalist, "1) Use Tweet, blog, SMS effectively. 2) Learn to say everything in under 30 seconds or 200 characters. 3) Think of their needs before thinking of yours.”  

Pranav Kumar, Managing Director in India for Bite, an agency handling creative and digital communication for organisations, agrees that; “Media relations today is a different ball game and as agencies we have to map the media better, pitch sharper and collaborate with clients to deliver compelling content, insights and story lines. Be creative and deliver insightful pitches because journalists today are very specific in what they’re looking for. You can’t simply ride the wave as far as a particular media ‘hot button’ or something topical goes. And know that every ill-prepared pitch whether written or spoken has the potential to draw a journalist’s ire. You’ll hear about it either on twitter or on a forum somewhere.”

Pranav adds that, “The more sophisticated ones put ‘engagement’ right at the core. By using insights gained from conversations (whether online and offline), understanding audiences and where they are (read communities, blogs and traditional media), are able to straddle engagement with both sets of influencers seamlessly.”

Pranav however points out that, “In today’s ‘always-on’ world are agencies in India ready to manage this increasing shift towards online influencers? I’d say not entirely. Most tend be traditional and heavily focused on media relations or do not understand the rules of engagement with the online community. One does hear of occasional social media missteps involving PR agencies especially with blogger outreach. Also don’t forget, clients also at the end of the day sometimes are very focused on traditional media outcomes from their agency partners. We’re making progress though and ‘hybrid’ briefs are slowly making their way in.”

Shalini, principal correspondent, with leading television news network CNN–IBN, says what she looks for is an accurate and quick brief, “A reporter does not have much of a phone time but he or she is not a fool. Do not come up with Press Releases like 'world's first MRI machine' when you mean a 'new kind of advanced MRI which doesn't use radiation to scan'. Shalini adds that “A well prepared PR pitch does help - to interest the reporter in the story. Facts and figures are helpful to pick up. But more than anything else it is the timely response to the reporter that gets you there. “

Pradeep Surin, principal correspondent with Dainik Bhaskar, one of the top two newspapers in India across all languages, has some candid suggestions for PR professionals. He says, “As a PR professional you must not treat journos as a photocopy machine. Make them your friend first. Talk about your story idea, but never complain if he/she does not carry the story. PR guys who limit their requests are always close to journos. Meeting them often without story is always appreciated. Facebook and gtalk are always there; use them to go close to them, but try to avoid pitching a story on a social networking site."

In addition to the traditional media plank of print and television media, the PR community has to also now tackle the ever growing influence of the digital journalist.

Commenting on the rise of digital journalism, Madhavan says, “it is just beginning. Independent journalism with niche blogs is futuristic.”

Dainik Bhaskar’s Pradeep Surin agrees that, “Things have completely changed. Thanks to smart phones, most of the active journalists are very fast now. They are keeping tabs on each and every development throughout the day and updating on their websites and on Twitter and Facebook has increased dramatically."

Bite’s Pranav Kumar believes that going digital is no longer a matter of choice for PR professionals; "Our world has changed and we have to adapt. We have to think increasingly online and beyond media relations and as PR firms, we have to increasingly invest in people with newer skill sets as far as digital strategy, content, search and social are concerned. “

As Tinu Cherian Abraham puts it “Happy customers will become powerful evangelists of your company, people, products, and brand. Engage with them over social media; use the tools like Facebook, Twitter and other Discussion Forums effectively. On this new uncontrolled media, like it or not, information about you or your brand are going to spread fast and wide. If your company is not out there, listening, monitoring and spreading brand reputation, it is not be just missing an opportunity but even risking it."

This is what the new media relations in India consist of: handling traditional media and coming to grips with digital journalists who could be anyone from a formal blogger to a key online influencer who has decided to hate or love your brand today.