A common experience that new people doing media relations find is that success seems random. They churn out press releases and ring up lots of journalists. But some stories work and most don’t – and it’s not clear why.
Media relations, when done correctly, actually delivers pretty predictable and reliable results. But it requires a few things to be in place.
First, you can’t do media relations reliably if you don’t understand the titles that you’re pitching to. A good media relations specialist will have a researched and chosen a selection of important journalists who are really relevant to their employer. Crucially, the media bod will have read each journalist’s back catalogue of articles (going back several years) and check out new pieces as they are published. That way, the media person will have a pretty reliable idea of whether a story is likely to work before they pitch it.
Of course, at the low-end, commodity end of media relations this doesn’t happen. The property correspondent at a business publication tells me that she receives lots of press releases announcing new hotels being opened in Spain, but she actually writes at a higher level about major trends in commercial property and so doesn’t find those pitches relevant. PR people who haven’t done their homework keep pitching guest articles to The Economist, which quite obviously doesn’t take them. This approach is the cause of PR people saying that they find journalists to be rude, but the alleged rudeness is actually the fault of bad practice by PR people.
Secondly, it’s no good if you position yourself internally like a servant who waits for the bell to be rung – and then enters the room to be told to issue a press release on something. In fact, it is a vital function of media relations staff to guide colleagues away from talking about themselves in self-indulgent press releases that no self-respecting publication will use.
Instead, it’s important to be involved right at the start of the process, advising on what will actually be of interest and of high enough quality to make Newsnight or The Times. Indeed, this stage is arguably the single most important part of media relations specialist’s role, because doing it well sets you up for success. But to be any good, you need a really developed nose for what constitutes news – which will only happen from extensive study of the media outlets you want to appear in.
Thirdly, spray and pray commoditises your content. What good publications normally want are exclusive stories and exclusive comment. It de-risks your work if you can give a major and relevant outlet your story exclusively. They’ll run it bigger and it will give them the opportunity to hold it over until a day when they can give it the space it needs. This is not always the right approach but does improve the reliability of success.
Fourthly, if your boss insists that you ring lists of journalists who you’ve spammed to ask them “Did you get my press release?” – well, then you have boss who doesn’t know what he’s doing. You are essentially telling the journalist that (a) you’re an amateur and (b) your employer or client has such a low opinion of their status as a journalist that you’re going to waste their time by not treating them as high-quality contact but as a tick box on telesales calling list.
Fifthly, a budget is essential. This is the problem many small agencies get into: they don’t explain the necessity of, and don’t get agreement about, a budget in addition to their fees. And so – with no budget – all they can do is sent low-end press releases and letters to newspapers. The truth is that high-end media outlets are interested in covering high-end new stuff – such as economic analyses, properly commissioned polls, trends backed up by data. If you’re a FTSE100 company your annual report and major appointments will be covered automatically – but don’t expect this if you’re an SME.
As you can see, there are a range of pitfalls that media relations people fall into – and it’s why many new entrants in PR try to run from doing media relations as quickly as possible, and why many PR people say their job is stressful. But if you avoid these pitfalls, the results quickly become more reliable – and the job becomes much more fulfilling.