Media relations is hard and getting harder.
That’s according to 223 PR professionals polled for the 2019 JOTW Communications Survey.
A majority of respondents said media relations is getting “harder” (53%) or “much harder” (15%). That number was up sharply—17%—from the same survey the previous year.
What’s driving the change?
We solicited commentary around this question from PR professionals who took the survey to find out. Some of the written responses are what you might expect—comments like these:
- “There are fewer reporters, and getting their attention is harder.”
- “Journalists, like everyone else, are increasingly seeing their time splintered, their resources [getting] cut and responsibilities increase.”
- “Journalists are bombarded with email pitches, many which stink, and there seems to be less opportunity to build an actual relationship with journalists.”
Yet some of the other answers might surprise you:
- “Journalists are increasingly strident toward, instead of partnering with, PR professionals. It’s virtually impossible to have an actual conversation with a writer.
- “Journalists are no longer objective, they are much more subjective and if you do not fall within their lane or their bias, they are not interested, and you are left by the wayside. The days of objectivity are gone and the days of combative, aggressive, argumentative ‘in your face’ journalism has taken its place.”
- “It’s harder to know who is [the] media and who isn’t. And there used to be rules of engagement—behavior, fairness. Now, it’s say whatever you want about whomever you want.”
Strident? Combative? Say whatever you want?
Media relations isn’t just harder. It’s beginning to sound like a sparring match.
Bias, ethics and PR stunts
Whether bias is real or perceived, in my assessment of the data and sentiment, there are a few realities. There are fewer opportunities to earn bona fide media coverage. There are more pitches vying for those shrinking opportunities. It’s becoming more challenging to get good and relevant ideas considered—and when a chance is taken, the environment today can be more flammable.
When you combine these realities with the fact that news skews toward the anomaly (news by definition defies expectations), you might get the idea that manufacturing an “exception” is a path to earned media.
This kind of thinking is reminiscent of a clothing retailer, who years ago put up controversial billboards and then an employee intentionally—and surreptitiously—defaced them. A high-profile blog was “tipped off” to the feigned outrage and the rest of the media then picked up on it and duly reported the incident as controversy.
That particular company grew a reputation for manufacturing controversy, at the same time going bankrupt twice before finally closing forever. Those two facts may not be causal, but they are almost assuredly related.
Bad PR behavior isn’t always calculated or nefarious. It’s more likely to develop as the result of one-upmanship, where an organization pushes the boundaries a little more, and then a little more, without stopping to realize just how far the boundaries have moved.
How to keep your moral compass
The temptation to replace thoughtfully considered and strategic communications with foolish antics (link might be NSFW, but it is relevant), feigned outrage or manufactured controversy is shortsighted. In the long run, people will see through it and PR will have failed at its mandate as protector of the organizational reputation.
It’s also entirely unnecessary. You can still drive news coverage with without selling your soul.
Consider these ideas:
1. Be the voice of reason.
PR has long positioned itself as the conscience of an organization and such messaging has a clear advantage: The truth is often more interesting than fiction. Being a voice of reason implies that you embody transparency and candor. Therefore, it can be helpful to invoke the vulnerability of being human in the stories we tell.
My friend, Lou Hoffman calls it the “F word” in storytelling: failure. It’s essential to teasing out the tension that’s a prerequisite for good stories. The challenge with this is, that leaders typically only want to put their best foot forward and discuss all the success without all the strife.
However, sharing your mistakes is an inspirational way to communicate. More importantly, it’s one with which people can identify. It builds trust along with intrigue. You don’t need stunts to appeal to the media, you just need good, honest stories.
2. Study the media.
Too many communicators overlook the basics media relations. Invest the time to truly understand a reporter, what they cover and why. Media relations must be more than just exporting a spreadsheet of contacts and hitting the send button.
By sending fewer pitches that are personalized, highly relevant and timely, you will generally outperform mass emails. It’s not rocket science: A good pitch should, in a couple of hundred words or less, show the reporter you understand them by aligning your pitch with their audience.
If you are involved in media relations, studying the media is imperative. It is your job to know who is covering what and why.
3. Augment media relations with content marketing.
As I wrote for an IABC feature in Communication World, my epiphany with content came years ago, when a pitch I thought was timely and relevant fell on deaf ears. I took that pitch, transformed it into a blog post which in turn, took off once it was published. It gained traction to the extent it wound up capturing the attention of the very publication that had ignored my pitch in the first place and earned coverage anyway.
4. Make the most of the coverage you do earn.
Many communicators’ first instinct is to look forward to the next piece, without truly appreciating what they’ve already earned. However, what you do with earned media is just as important as getting it in the first place.
There’s a long list of things you can do to amplify a media mention, including:
- Share it internally—really get the word out in your organization.
- Weave parts of the interview that didn’t make it into blog posts and other contributions.
- Post it to social media, and then pay to promote it once organic reach is exhausted.
- Pitch it to an industry newsletter.
- Send a link to your sales team so they can use it to contact customers and prospects.
- Buy reprints and mail them out to key stakeholders.
- Bring copies to your next tradeshow.
Remember that coverage tends to beget coverage. Nobody watches the media like the media.
Frank Strong is the founder and president of Sword and the Script Media, LLC, a veteran-owned PR and marketing agency based in Atlanta. Find him on Twitter @Frank_Strong. A version of this article originally appeared on the PR Expanded blog.