What does a publisher do? Use (or abuse) media

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of ‘What functions do publishers fulfil?’, but rather ‘What operations do publishers (well, this publisher, at any rate) perform?’ This post is the ninth in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders’) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of  stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post focuses on management of interactions with one of the four ‘non-trading’ stakeholders included in the framework, namely the media. Thus:

Owners, investors Workforce State
Clients, customers

In the formative years of stakeholder management theory – say, the 1980s and early ’90s – it was reasonably clear, when it was argued that business should think of the media as a form of stakeholder, what was meant by ‘the media’. For the publishing industry the term referred to, in the main, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. 

Now, of course, with the advent of ‘new media’ and ‘social media’ and the phenomenon of media convergence, things are much less clear. The channels have both multiplied and become more interactive, with the result that consumers have become producers too. Hence, by the way, my decision not to insert a ‘the’ in the sub-title above, for ‘the media’ sounds like a distinct and identifiable group – a conception that is no longer accurate.  

We founded our business – The Professional and Higher Partnership in 2006. For the first few years we largely ignored Web 2.0. One reason was uncertainty – we found it impossible which channels would last and how each of those that did would be productive.  I’m glad we adopted that position. We could have invested energy in channels that didn’t last. Web 2.0 will, of course, remain in a state of flux – and in due course morph into Web 3.0 – but we feel more confident now about investing energy in some of the winners to date.

Before venturing into Web 2.0 territory, our use of (the) media was confined largely to establishing a traditional (as it were) Web 1.0 website and providing copy – through articles and press releases – to magazines, principally The Bookseller, The Author, and the Times Higher Educational Supplement (as it used to be known). I wrote articles to generate cash (from author fees) and to gain endorsement from the publications in which the articles appeared (if they thought we were worth publishing, surely we must know a thing or two). The articles were primarily about publishing, authorship, and the main context in which we work, namely higher education.

Today we make almost no use of traditional media, other than write the occasional article for Writing in Education. Our migration away from periodicals isn’t for any negative reason (though I do find that, in the digital age, they’ve lost some of their aura). It’s more a question of opportunity cost: there isn’t time to do everything and we prefer to devote the time available to Web 2.0 – principally WordPress and Twitter. 

The attraction of social media is that it provides rapid feedback. One learns quickly – from monitoring statistics, reading comments, tracing retweets, and so on – what readers do (and don’t) understand and they are (or are not) interested in. I also like the Wild West element of social media – the conventions of genre aren’t fully established and there’s an element of making it up as we go along.

We use social media rather in the way that one would network at an event. That is, it’s important to ensure the conversation is just that – a conversation. There needs to be reciprocity. Answer people’s queries; comment on other people’s blog posts; retweet interesting tweets; help people connect with content. What I like about all this is that, to a large extent, the effective thing to do is the courteous thing.

There’s one group that doesn’t ‘get’ social media – corporations. Especially large corporations. When I started using Twitter, I tried following the big name publishers. What a bore! ‘Copies of XXX are flying off the shelves’  (who cares?). ‘Just seen an advance copy of YYY’ (reaches for the ‘unfollow’ button). Chuff! chuff! chuff! chuff! – as DH Lawrence said of Whitman. Sometimes an attempt is made to disguise the relentless bragging as the spilling over of uncontainable excitement: ‘Woohoo! The cover designs for the new edition are in!’

These kinds of corporations are like bores at a party, droning predictably on, taking no interest in the other guests, who they figure merely as an audience. They show no sign of curiosity about the world around them. In a word, they are discourteous.


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