Where can you buy strings? And other related lessons from the music industry

It was the day my national manager proudly told me that he’d closed more businesses than he’d opened that the question really hit me.

Is it time to reconsider my career? I asked myself.

In hindsight, the red flags started when employee farewell drinks started to outnumber welcoming drinks ten to one, and “how are you?” turned from an enquiry about my weekend to a genuine concern about my welfare from long-term clients.

For the past twelve years, I worked in musical instrument retail in Australia. Initially, opportunities for career progression seemed limitless, and I was naively happy, building a life and career on the back of selling my passion – the guitar. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the industry failed to embrace new technologies, and as a result, you’d be hard pressed to find a store in any of Australia’s CBDs selling even a pack of guitar strings.

There are parallels to be drawn between the current state of the media relations industry and the challenges faced by my former industry. Over recent years the media environment has undergone rapid transformation. However, media relations is still performed in much the same way it was decades ago.

What happened to the musical instrument industry?
The GFC coincided with a range of technological advancements that led to a complete disruption of the musical instrument industry. Throw in a lowering Australian dollar, and you have a recipe for – opportunity and growth or disruption, denial, and decline.

Unfortunately, the majority of Australian instrument retailers chose the latter. While consumers were increasingly turning to the convenience of online shopping from cheaper international outlets and online peer to peer purchases, most businesses held onto their existing models of face to face transactions in bricks and mortar retail outlets, largely shunning the business opportunities online retail provided.
At the time, the owners of these businesses would argue that “our positive customer relationships will see us through.” This self-important view failed to understand two key considerations: consumers value convenience, and relationships have a monetary value.

What does this mean for media relations?
It is dangerous to depend solely on your current relationships to generate future revenue.
Relationships are never static. Your clients will leave if there is a more suitable solution to their problems, and your internal stakeholders will move. The media landscape has undergone significant change over the past decade, yet the day to day reality for media relations remains largely the same.

If the environment around you is changing, you need to adapt your business to meet not just these changing conditions, but also the next wave of change. Just like we coach our clients and stakeholders to be prepared rather than reactionary, we too should be adapting our methods to take advantage of the opportunities technology will bring now and in the future.

What’s next?
It’s no secret that technology provides an opportunity for growth – or disruption. The rise of e-commerce provided the Australian musical instrument industry with an exciting opportunity to reach a wider customer base. While others focused on reducing their stock range to the “key sellers,” i.e. high-volume or profit lines, in response to lowering profits, an entrepreneurial former mentor of mine was selling electronic drum kits by the pallet load over eBay to customers in remote locations.

At 8:30 am each morning he would check his eBay account and proudly announce he’d surpassed his daily budget before the doors even opened. He was utilising technology to do the heavy lifting for him, until the management of the day shut him down. He was adapting; they were still in denial.

As communicators, we too can use technology to do some of the media relations heavy lifting for us. Developments in machine learning provide opportunities for communicators to automate some of the more mundane aspects of the job, freeing time up to focus on the areas where we can provide the most value to clients and stakeholders.

Technology and disruption impacts every industry. Whether automation augments or replaces our jobs will be determined by our – and our industry’s – ability to adapt. As I take my initial steps into building a new career in the communications industry, I will not forget my past.

If you do not adapt and embrace change, you will be left behind. There’s not much you can do about change if you bury your head in the sand.