Media Relations Is Dead. Long Live Media Relations.

A few weeks ago, a senior media executive at one of the largest, most digitally savvy PR agencies shared with me a call he had with his top management in which they lamented the lack of media relations savvy from the firm’s younger professionals. “Shouldn’t there be more formal training,” they pressed, to which he replied that he’s already established a regular agency-wide communiqué with publicity-generating tips and contacts. The executive also suggested to his managers that perhaps the firm should lighten up on the external promotion of non-traditional means for building branded digital media footprints.

As we enter 2014, it’s easy to point to content marketing – earned, owned, paid and otherwise — as the direction in which the industry is headed. In fact, I personally called for agencies to embrace hybrid paid/owned and earned/owned content schemes in last year’s year-end post. More recently I wrote that the time was ripe for PR firms to further ratchet up their content marketing game by embracing some of the sophisticated new algorithms and A/B testing schemes that enhance the likelihood of a viewer clicking on and/or sharing a piece of client content. The industry also has access to data-driven mechanisms that tell whether exposure to a marketing-driven message eventually led to a sales transaction.

In last year’s post, I worried that firms and practitioners who rely solely on the benevolence of journalists to advance theirs clients’ communications interests may eventually be left behind. There are just too many avenues from which consumers today take their news and information, starting with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Even so, a great “placement” (I hate that term) in an influential media outlet like Bloomberg, The Journal, Mashable, and CNNMoney or on The AP wire retains an uncanny capacity to set Twitter tongues-a-wagging.

It is for this reason that earned media, i.e., the successful engagement of a journalist that results in editorial coverage, will remain very much a core industry offering in 2014. As much as has changed, my clients continue to want to see their product, service or point-of-view reported in the “media.”

This reality is not lost on the vast majority of agencies. I can’t tell you how many requests I receive from some of the most forward-thinking (and sounding) shops for help finding them solid media relations pros. One look at any PR job board will reveal that media relations remains the single-most sought-after competency by agencies of all stripes and most in-house communications departments.

There’s nothing like a seasoned PR pro who understands how to navigate (and have empathy for) the most sought-after reporters, bloggers and TV producers. Yet, the competition for these journalists’ limited bandwidth is as fierce as it’s been in my three decades plying the PR trade. In fact, I would guess that fewer than one in a hundred PR pitches actually succeed in producing coverage. (Not for my clients, of course.)

It seems that consumers are not alone in taking their news and info from non-traditional sources. Journalists too have self-selected the sources on whom they rely for real-time story ideas. As a result, they have grown less beholden to PR professionals. (This of course varies from industry to industry and from agency to in-house.)

Nonetheless, in 2014, for better or worse, media coverage (that makes a difference) will continue to be the primary measure by which the vast majority of agencies are largely compensated and for which industry awards are handed out. Once we accept this reality, we simply must do a better job to inculcate those new to the profession in the workings of the modern media organization and those within it responsible for producing editorial content. There is no reason for our industry to constantly take it on the chin en masse, as was the case recently when The New York Times’s resident Haggler David Segal groused about the propagation of PR spam.

In “Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam,” Segal in effect sums up the sorry state of the once symbiotic journalist-PR relationship:

“This is an unsolicited public relations pitch — P.R. spam, more succinctly — one of hundreds of thousands that belly-flop into the email systems of journalists every day…suddenly the Haggler noticed that P.R. spam started showing up the way flying monkeys appear in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Swarms landed each day, imploring the Haggler to write about Christmas Cookie Treat Boxes, or a document previewer called Igloo, or a liquor called Pura Vida Tequila, which ‘will be in the house this season at Qualcomm Stadium.’ Woo-hoo.”

The reasons for the explosion in PR spam in journalists’ inboxes – and the resulting disdain journalists have for PR people — has much to do with the blind trust many PR practitioners put in the media database and distribution companies. These companies have “empowered” PR people to build and contact scores of journalists instantly with just a few keystrokes. Sadly, many PR pros neglect to fully vet these so-called “target” media lists. The result: misguided PR spam, and PO’d reporters on the receiving end.

It’s one thing to send the wrong reporter a misguided story idea, and something entirely different in sending the right reporter a story idea that simply isn’t one. Many PR pros neglect to probe their clients for the superlatives needed to constitute a viable story, i.e., the first, largest, only. Where’s the news hook or trend? If no natural hook exists, then use your creative juices to develop one. Too many marginal pitches land in reporters’ inboxes only to be ignored, or worse, prompting the hated “follow-up call.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’re seeing a remarkable lack of quality writing from the PR profession. Back in the day, it was almost a pre-requisite for a PR professional to have some grounding in journalism. Today, not so much, except for those who’ve come over to “the dark side” in a “content marketing” capacity, e.g., Director of Content. Few of these former journalists are crafting “pitch” letters aimed at convincing reporters of the editorial merits of their client’s product or service. That work is traditionally pushed down to junior agency staffers (yes, even today), often with little oversight. Many of these pitches contain overused phrases and bloated prose that sounds hollow.

 To give you a sense, here’s a link to Digiday editor Brian Morrissey’s “25 PR Habits That Drive Reporters Nuts.”  If we could fix these shortcomings in 2014, it would go a long way toward revitalizing the practice of media relations, and in so doing, the value PR professionals offer to journalists.

With that said, we must also be mindful that a great “placement” in and of itself no longer has the capacity to drive a contemporary communications campaign. Stand-alone news stories are simply too ephemeral or lost altogether in the vast ocean of dynamic content. For a story meme to take hold today, it must reside and be amplified across multiple news and social channels even if that means using alternative (e.g., sponsored) means for achieving it.

This piece was first posted on PRSA’s PRSay blog

1 Comment

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