PR Disrupted: Surviving “Disruptive Innovation”

by PR Coach on October 17, 2012

PR and disruptive innovations

Can newspapers, PR survive “disruptive innovation?”

PR pros know all about disruption. The internet and social media have transformed our profession. Personally, I find working in public relations today refreshing, challenging and much more interesting because of these changes.

That doesn’t mean we’ve figured out how to deal with every aspect of disruption to our profession in the future. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation offers some tantalizing solutions and tips to guide us in the future.

In a recent post, Breaking News: Mastering the art of disruptive innovation in journalism, he, David Skok and James Allworth analyze the impact of disruptive innovation on traditional news media. It’s valuable reading. In the past, the steel and auto industries went through difficult transformations to survive. But the “news” is not very positive for newspapers who are losing revenue at seven times the rate they’re replacing it with new digital revenue.

So what can public relations learn from Christensen’s analysis of disruption to the newspaper business? In his article, he suggests three lessons for survival and success:

  • Always Consider The Audience First
  • When Times Change, Change Your Business
  • Build Capabilities for a New World.

These are lessons any business can take to heart in planning for the future when disruption impacts us. Christensen reminds us that in recent history, radio and TV impacted newspapers. Now, the disruptors are the internet and social media and the pace is even faster.

Audiences First

Christiansen developed theory of disruptive innovation

Harvard professor Clayton Christiansen developed theory of disruptive innovation

In PR, we already recognize this first lesson – the importance of audiences first. Christensen says many newspapers wrongly believe their businesses can best be explained in terms of key demographics, price points, or distribution platforms. A better way of looking at it is another theory he calls jobs-to-be-done:

“Looking at the market from the function of a product really originates from your competitors or your own employees deciding what you need,” he says. “Whereas the jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?”

Think about how so many of our public relations strategies and tactics could benefit by that “audience first” point of view. A look around your next visit to the dentist’s office will confirm the sea change in publishing. Most people are not reading months or years-old magazines, they’re texting, playing games, reading news or making calls on their cell phone.

Another example is the Metro, a free newspaper in many markets. Through that lens of job-to-be-done, it helps people fill their time. The product reflects the need. News items are short, punchy and easy to read. It’s distributed free and makes money from advertisers. Christensen says:

“Successful companies understand the jobs that arise in people’s lives and develop products that do the jobs perfectly. And if a company does this, customers will instinctively “pull” the product into their lives whenever that job arises.”

That description seems to fit PR and social media to a T. He reminds us that in 1980, the three major television works devoted only 30 minutes daily to the evening news. Entrepreneur Ted Turner launched 24-hour news network CNN. Perfectly filling a need and disrupting the TV industry status quo.

When Times Change, Change Your Business

Traditional newspapers run a value chain that has three parts: newsgathering, distribution and selling of the news. Adds Christiansen:

“Today, more news is created and consumed than ever before. Search engines, aggregators, blogs and social media are just some of the avenues for audiences to consume and create information. Add in satellite radio, over-the-top digital boxes, smartphones and tablets, and it’s apparent that news and information are everywhere in abundance and, increasingly, free.”

Disruptive, innovative new media like The Huffington Post and Buzz Feed started as news aggregators. He says they grew quickly by filling new consumer needs and adding new value. Christiansen suggests newsrooms can, for example, create value by adding curation and building communities around ideas.

He cites Forbes as another success story by focusing on niche topics and a network of bloggers and contributors who write posts and curate work from other publications. In one year the website doubled its number of unique visitors and search engine traffic grew from 18% to 32% of traffic. And, it just reached a tipping point with 50% of its revenue now coming from digital.

[Editor update: My colleague Brad Phillips mentioned Newsweek's shift to a digital-only product. It's worth reading Brad's post noting the magazine's statement about the change, though it was slightly flawed as you'll see. In my post's context, they seem to follow Christensen's advice on creating new business when they said: "...Meanwhile, Newsweek will expand its rapidly growing tablet and online presence, as well as its successful global partnerships and events business."]

Build Capabilities for a New World

the Internet has disrupted public relations

Public relations disrupted

Many smart, nimble PR agencies are quickly changing their business model and services too. Some have evolved into “social PR agencies” that look very different and offer completely new and different products and services than just three years ago.

Christensen says newspapers still have the advantage of scale and distribution. The challenge is figuring out how to evolve new business models to leverage this advantage before disruptors catch up. In terms of selling or marketing the “news,” he says sales and marketing teams can create new value by selling consulting services, event marketing, and long-tail repurposing as just three examples.

In the PR business, think about repurposing our core skills into some of the new, high demand services businesses looking for. This includes content marketing, curation, brand journalism, social media research and analysis, social marketing and social media management.

It’s not a big leap for public relations to add these skills to our toolbox. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says “Every company is a media company now.” If every business needs to become a publisher or broadcaster for success, PR is the perfect partner.

Christensen tells newspapers they need to understand their own capabilities. In other words, its resources, processes and priorities. Same for public relations. At the end of the day, you need to think like an upstart to survive. This doesn’t mean abandoning what still works. It means cutting loose the things that no longer makes sense or money. It could also mean looking for partners or acquisitions when core social media experience is not available.

What are the Disruptive Innovation Lessons for PR?

Christiansen asks questions we need to remember in responding to future disruptions to our public relations business:

  • What does the audience need?
  • What are the jobs-to-be-done?
  • What resources do we need to respond to disruption?
  • What are the new products or services we can offer in response?

In many ways the most important question we can ask is “How would we disrupt our PR business to take advantage of future opportunities?” The answer to that question will be our blueprint for success.

One thing is crystal clear: resisting change is not an option for survival. If you’re interested in learning more about Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, see this excellent video.

We promise you no disruptions here but always a few innovations or fresh ideas when you sign on for our weekly newsletter. Our PR Library is open 24 x 7 too and they’ll be no disruptions there either because our virtual librarian is very strict.

Author: Jeff Domansky
Visuals:  iStockphoto, Harvard Business School/John Soares, Patrick Hoesly via Flickr