Marketing communications, the business of letting people know about your products and services, can be broken down into two distinct parts: advertising and publicity. For more about the differences between the two, see Use publicity to get noticed.

As the earlier post says, advertising is straightforward. You pay money directly to a media company. In return, you retain control over your message and how it is presented. It’s a commercial transaction.

Publicity is different. It can still cost you money – there are plenty of businesses who will willingly accept payment for their promotional services – but in general you don’t pay the media to propagate your message and you have no say over timing, placement or presentation. You can’t even be sure it will run.

In theory, you should be able to get publicity when the story you want to tell is so compelling that journalists and editors will fall over themselves to ensure it appears in their publications, blogs or broadcasts. Just remember their idea of compelling is unlikely to coincide with your opinion.

Editors are driven by the need to provide readers, viewers or listeners with the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They may also be looking for something entertaining to brighten up their pages.

Contrary to what you may think, they generally don’t care at all about whether their stories help you or your business. Or at least they shouldn’t if they are doing their job properly. However, there are some, less than totally independent publications where this logic doesn’t apply.

Another common misunderstanding about publicity is that the best way to get it is to use something known as the press release. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are often written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with some background.

Press releases can work, but in general they don’t. Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the usual place for rubbish. Others are stored, maybe for future reference or to keep potentially useful contact information in a handy place. They mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura rather than the reality of useful media activity.

In fact, there are publicity experts who believe the overwhelming majority of press releases are never read by journalists, let alone used as the basis for an editorial item.

Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or even something ridiculously bombastic like media consul – will tell you that press releases are only one, not particularly useful strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.

We’ll look more closely at the mechanics of press releases another time.

Remember, publicity involves enticing the media to write or broadcast information about your company, product or services because you have something new, important, exciting or otherwise interesting to say.

Often the best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may be of interest to their readers. Like everything else in business, this is largely a matter of forming the right relationships.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to do the calling on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know precisely who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that will make them more interesting to journalists or editors. They can introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.

Occasionally when you have something particularly important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it’s not always the best way of telling a specific story, but it’s a great way to make or maintain contact.

I’m a career journalist and editor (almost 30 years now). I mainly blog to learn more about blogging and how it works. It’s a way of staying current. Right now I’m on my fourth blog and I think I’m getting the hang of it.

What have I learnt so far?

1. You don’t need fancy software to blog.
2. The free hosting services are as good as or better than self-hosting.
3. Blogging can take up a huge amount of time, but it doesn’t have to.
4. There’s a community aspect to blogging that isn’t apparent until you dive in and do it yourself.
5. Blogging is similar, but not the same as journalism.
6. My blogs don’t tend to drive traffic to my website, nor do they deliver any direct economic benefits.

The evolution of computer magazines

An interesting post from the Australian Newsagency blog which has noticed how computer magazines are broadening their coverage to include home entertainment and other kinds of electronic hardware.

This has been the case for some time in New Zealand where the local edition of PC World has a long track record of covering mobile phones, plasma and lcd TVs and other home entertainment hardware. New Zealand PC World has taken this a step further with its NZ Gear Guide – a glossy how-to-shop-for-hardware publication which is now on its second edition.

Two bloggers posted journalist perspectives on the power of blogs. Both are recent blogging converts. Both have worthwhile observations.

In why journalists must learn the values of the blogging revolution, The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argues that in the past journalists were secular priests pontificating to the great unwashed. He says news was a one-way traffic. Blogging, with its built-in feedback mechanisms has turned that on its head.

Maybe. Here in New Zealand, there’s often plenty of negative feedback when you write something that somebody doesn’t like. The odd thing about blogging and online news is you also get positive feedback. This is strange and unusual to some of us.

Future journalist bloggers

Greenslade goes on to write:

“I have tended to predict that future news organisations will consist of a small hub of “professional journalists” at the centre with bloggers (aka amateur journalists/citizen journalists) on the periphery. In other words, us pros will still run the show.

I’m altogether less certain about that model now. First, I wonder whether us pros are as valuable as we think. Second, and more fundamentally, I wonder whether a “news organisation” is as perfect a model as we might think.”

I’d be concerned about Greenslade’s conclusion if I agreed with his hub and periphery prediction. My vision of the future of journalism is that it is more like a sports league with professionals operating on one level, semi-professionals working at another and the amateurs elsewhere. And, as with the English FA Cup, there’s always potential for the occasional upset.

Towards the end of his piece Greenslade writes:

When we journalists talk about integration we generally mean, integrating print and online activities. But the true integration comes online itself. The integration between journalists and citizens. Of course, there should be no distinction between them. But journalists still wish to see themselves as a class apart.

Funny, I’ve never thought of myself as being a class apart from my readers. I’ve always regarded them as my employers.

New Zealand blogger Bernard Hickey writes he feels liberated as a blogger. He likes the speed of the medium, the feedback and the ability to connect to his audience. As Hickey says, he is now a blogging evangelist.

Hickey’s blog interests me because it serves an audience that is relatively ignored in New Zealand. For want of a better label his target is middle class, aspirational and liberal in the British sense, not the American sense.

Predictably, The Australian newspaper said illegal downloads are the reason in worldwide music sales have fallen to their lowest point in 23 years.

It says 1.8 billion albums sold in 2007, roughly the same number as at the start of the CD sales boom in 1985.

MP3 downloads have an impact – but they are not the whole story. After all, The Economist reported earlier this year EMI can’t even give CDs away to younger listeners.

Thanks to music industry-lead legal actions attacking downloaders, p2p services and ISPs it was harder to illegally download music than in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade when Napster and other services were at the peak of their popularity. The surviving p2p networks are now chock full of spam and music industry-generated dummy files designed to make downloading difficult.

Here I want to concentrate on one important aspect: the music industry was the architect of its own decline.

The last serious flowering of popular music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know, I was there. An explosion of new talent appeared as punk rock and new wave morphed into dozens of other fresh new music styles.

Significantly, the burst of creativity gave birth to acts as diverse as The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Ramones. Accompanying this was a commercial blossoming as hundreds of entrepreneurial, occasionally idealistic, small record companies and other related businesses arrived on the scene.

Similar waves arrived in the 1950s with original rock and roll, then again in the 1960s with the Beatles and rock’s second coming and then a third wave from 1967 through to the early 1970s. Each successive wave  had a creative aspect and a commercial one.

Around the time CD sales took off, the record industry began a process of consolidation that eventually left just four major companies accounting for most global sales (about 70 percent in the USA, more in some other western countries).

Along the way these new mega-companies trimmed their rosters of acts and began playing it safe; which meant squashing innovation and creativity. They also started mining their back catalogues far more than they did in the past. I can’t quote numbers, but old music accounts for a sizable share of today’s total sales.

As a result of these moves there are now  fewer signed artists and less room for commercial mavericks to flourish. The remaining acts are more predictable and controllable — great for large corporations reporting to shareholders, not so good for nurturing the next generation of talent. Independent record companies pick up bright new acts, but sooner or later they the majors acquire them and the squelching starts all over again.

Which means the music industry would be in serious decline now even if illegal music downloading never happened.

The Australian newspaper says illegal downloads are the reason music sales fell to their lowest point in 23 years. It is no longer online.

According to the paper 1.8 billion albums sold in 2007. That’s roughly the same number as at the start of the CD sales boom in 1985.

MP3 downloads have an impact – but they are not the whole story. The Economist reported earlier this year EMI can’t even give CDs away to younger listeners.

Illegal downloading harder, riskier

Thanks to music industry-lead legal actions against downloaders, p2p services and ISPs, illegal downloading is now harder than in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade.

That was when Napster and other services were at the peak of their popularity. Surviving p2p networks are now filled with spam. They have music industry-generated dummy files designed to make downloading difficult.

This aside: the music industry was the architect of its own decline.

The last serious flowering of popular music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know, I was there. An explosion of new talent appeared as punk rock and new wave. It morphed into dozens of other fresh new music styles.

New wave music, creative boom

That burst of creativity gave us acts as diverse as The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Ramones.

Accompanying this was a commercial blossoming. Hundreds of entrepreneurial, at times idealistic, record companies and related businesses arrived on the scene.

Similar waves arrived in the 1950s with original rock and roll. Then again in the 1960s with the Beatles and rock’s second coming. A third wave was from 1967 through to the early 1970s. Each successive wave  had a creative and commercial aspects.

Around the time CD sales took off, the record industry began a process of consolidation. This left four major companies accounting for most global sales. About 70 percent in the USA, more in some other western countries.

Music industry squeezing out innovation

Along the way the new mega-companies trimmed their rosters of acts. They began playing it safe; which meant squashing innovation and creativity. They also started mining their back catalogues more than in the past. I can’t quote numbers, but old music accounts for a sizable share of today’s total sales.

As a result, there are fewer signed artists. There is less room for commercial mavericks to flourish. The remaining acts are more predictable and controllable. That’s great for large corporations reporting to shareholders, not so good for nurturing new talent.

Independent record companies still pick up bright new acts. But sooner or later they the majors get hold of them and the squelching starts all over again.

Which means the music industry would be in serious decline now even without illegal music downloading.

Even so, I’ve decided to make sure my music collection is one hundred percent legal.