Survey: Most PR Pros Say that Media Relations is Getting Harder – Here’s What You Can Do About It

By Frank Strong, Founder & President of Sword and the Script Media

Media relations is hard and getting harder.

That’s according to 223 PR professionals polled for the 2019 JOTW Communications Survey.

A majority (68%) 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.

But, why?

We solicited commentary around this question from PR professionals that 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.

The Intersection of Bias, Ethics and PR Stunts in Media Relations

Whether bias is real or perceived, in my assessment of the data and sentiment, there are few realities:

  • There are fewer opportunities to earn bona fide media coverage;
  • There are more pitches vying for those fewer opportunities;
  • It’s more challenging to get good and relevant ideas considered; and
  • When an idea is considered, the environment today can be more flammable.

When you combined these realities with the fact that news skews toward the anomaly – news by definition defies expectations – you start to come to the idea that manufacturing the exception is a path to earned media.

This idea reminds me 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. I’d hasten to point out it also went bankrupt twice before finally closing forever. Those two facts may not be causal, but they are almost assuredly related.

To be clear, this may not unfold in such a calculated or nefarious fashion. It’s more likely to evolve as the result of one-upmanship – where PR pushes the boundaries a little more, and then a little more, without stopping to realize just how far the boundaries have moved.

4 Ways to Make the Most of Media Relations Without Selling Your Soul

The temptation to replace thoughtfully considered and strategic communications with foolish antics (link may not 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 keeper of the organizational reputation.

It’s also entirely unnecessary. You can still drive news coverage with without losing, or worse, selling your soul. Here’s how:

1) Be the voice of reason.

PR has long positioned itself as the conscience of an organization and there’s a clear advantage to it: the truth is often more interesting than fiction. A voice of reason implies transparency and candor. As such it’s 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 – to discuss all the success without all the strife.

Yet the voice of reason isn’t just ethical, it’s 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) Truly study the media.

Too many overlook the basics of media relations – investing the time to truly understand a reporter, what they cover and why. For many, media relations is just an exercise in exporting a spreadsheet of contacts and hitting the send button.

The paradox is that fewer pitches, that are personalized, highly relevant and timely, will generally outperform mass emails and high volume. It’s not rocket science: a good pitch should, in a couple of hundred words or less, show the reporter you understand them by linking your pitch to their audience.

This isn’t just a tactical application. 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 very publication that had ignored my pitch in the first place…and earned coverage anyway.

There are a lot of PR myths about content marketing, but the fact remains, it’s a genuine opportunity to fill an information gap and build an audience. This is PR at its finest – relations with a public community. In the course of doing so, your audience will naturally help surface those ideas that have broader appeal and may merit broader, or more traditional coverage.

In other words, well-executed content marketing helps you develop an additional platform to communicate with reporters. At the same time, you’ll also be honing skills – editorial and audience building – that allow you to better identify with reporters and add value to your organization.

4) Make the most of the coverage you do earn.

The typical inclination in PR is to look forward to the next piece, without truly appreciating what you’ve already earned. Yet 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; then pay to promote it once organic reach is exhausted;
  • Pitch it to an industry newsletter;
  • Send a link to sales; they appreciate an excuse to contact customers and prospects;
  • Buy reprints and mail them out to key stakeholders; and
  • Bring copies of the reprint to your next tradeshow, among others.

There’s a side benefit to all this too – that coverage tends to beget coverage. Nobody watches the media like the media.

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The 2019 JOTW Communications Survey polled 223 communications and public relations (PR) professionals. Most (68%) respondents report holding in-house communication roles and 90% have 10 years or more experience in the industry.

The second annual survey was conducted by yours truly in collaboration with Ned Lundquist. Ned launched “Job of the Week” (JOTW) email newsletter in 2001 as a free resource for PR and communications professionals looking for work.

An analysis of the survey along with a link to SlideShare where you can view or download the complete report can be found here: Corporate Communications is Taking More PR Work In-House, finds Survey; Media Relations Gets Even Harder.

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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.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Sam McGhee on Unsplash