Public relations professionals and journalists depend on each other to do their jobs. But it’s not always the easiest relationship to manage. As a former TV producer and newsroom manager, I have dealt with my share of pesky PR people who simply don’t get it. Now that I’m on the other side, I can see why PR practitioners feel frustrated and ignored, and why some writers and reporters may come off as apathetic or smug. Understanding both perspectives equally, I’ve compiled some guidance on ways you can strengthen your relationships with journalists and become their go-to source for story ideas and credible experts.
There’s a perception that local news went “soft” during the pandemic when viewers were desperate for stories that made them feel good. Now that newsrooms are getting back to normal, there’s a concerted effort to return to basics and focus on finding a unique lead story – the most visible story in a newspaper or the very first story in a TV newscast – that will hook the viewer or the reader. The lead usually incorporates the outlet’s brand pillars, which often includes investigations, tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and celebrating the community. It’s typically the biggest story of the day. Topics like crimes, accidents, fires, new legislation from local government, or the President of the United States coming to town are all good contenders. It must be something the majority of viewers or readers are interested in or impacted by.
So how do PR pros fit into that decision making? If clients are the subject of the lead story, it’s often for all the wrong reasons. But there are ways we can weave their messaging into the narrative in a different way. PR pros should be aware of the headlines of the day and be ready to pitch their clients to news outlets as credible experts. For example, if the lead story is about vaccines for kids, do you have a health care client on your roster with a media-friendly pediatrician ready to go for an interview? Prepare your clients ahead of time for last minute requests and be ready to pitch them to reporters before decisions are made in their editorial meetings. The more quality content, guests, and experts you come through with, the better chance you’ll be top of mind for journalists when they’re searching for stories.
Most journalists are juggling multiple stories at a time and attempting to make tight deadlines amid quick schedule turnarounds and last-minute staffing changes. The last thing they need is to have to chase PR people down for more information. With that in mind, don’t hold anything back if you can help it. Be sure to clearly and concisely provide all the information they would need to tell your story up front – that includes a clear news hook, relevant data, credible experts to interview, and links to additional information.
The last few years have brought some of the largest protest movements and social reckonings that we’ve ever seen in America. Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement have people and institutions across the nation tackling deep-seated biases to become more inclusive at their core and to avoid being left behind – and newsrooms are no exception. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center in 2016, just 23% of newsroom employees were people of color and 61% of newsroom employees were men. News organizations have realized that not only is it important to employ journalists that better represent the communities they serve, but that having those journalists makes for more accurate, well-rounded, and well-reported news content. That also includes diversity in interview subjects. PR pros can help by being thoughtful about the subject matter experts they pitch and being conscious to offer up more women and minorities for these opportunities to form content that reflects a wider range of experiences and perspectives.
Most journalists prefer email to receive PR pitches. After emailing your pitch, allow for a reasonable amount of time to pass before following up (the amount of time will vary from one pitch to another). A follow up should simply be a second, and sometimes third and final, email. If you don’t hear back, it could be because they’re still mulling it over or became overwhelmed with other assignments or pitches. It may simply need to be bumped back up to the top of their inbox. Depending on your relationship with a journalist, a text message or call may be appropriate. But the rules aren’t clear cut. Try your best to read each situation individually and use the phone as a last resort.
We know time is money on this side of the divide, but taking the time to research a newsroom, connect with journalists, and truly understand how an individual newsroom operates will go a long way. Learn reporters’ schedules. Find out who produces each newscast. Get to know the assignment editor. Understand how each person you interact with does their job; some like to plan, others work in newsrooms with limited staffing and will almost always be assigned to the big headlines of the day. Understand that their deadlines are your deadlines. For a TV reporter, get to know their set and understand their equipment. Don’t just ask for blanket coverage. Be specific about what would make their coverage unique. Learn the lingo and identify opportunities for unique presentation (what sound bite would work great in a cold open, what information would look great as a fullscreen, what story a producer might consider while stacking their rundown, and what story would make for a great kicker). Becoming an expert on how journalists do their jobs is a great way to gain their respect.
Smart PR pros will craft tight and compelling stories in their pitches to grab a journalist’s attention. The smartest PR pros will go the extra mile to produce grab-and-go content – something a reporter can use with little to no rewrites. That copy should always be in AP Style, avoiding common style errors and cutting out jargon or extraneous punctuation. Be sure to always lead with the most newsworthy content and to point out any unique pieces of information that could stand out as part of a larger, long-term trend.
In the same way visual content captures an audience’s attention, it will likely also capture a journalist’s attention. Consider the story and what visuals might help a journalist better understand your pitch. That might include still images, video, interactive graphics, simple data charts, and illustrations. If it’s a good visual, it might help a reporter tell the story in an engaging way and make their job easier.
Newsrooms are challenged as technology creates more options for storytelling, making reaching a target audience more nuanced, and difficult, than ever. Journalists are being asked to create content for multiple platforms beyond the mothership (the newspaper or the newscast) and are learning that not every story is meant for air or print. PR pros should do their homework before pitching to determine the best way to tell their client’s story – both from their perspective and the reporter’s. While a “top ten” list may not make for a traditional news story, it might make a great TikTok for the outlet’s social media team. If your client is an expert on a story making national headlines, consider pitching them to news media as a great long form interview for their streaming platform, a Facebook Live, or extra content for their YouTube page. Get creative.
Opinions differ among PR professionals about this, but I believe maintaining a genuine connection with journalists is important, especially when you have nothing to pitch. Grow your relationship by watching their stories, reading their articles, sharing their coverage on social media, and, if you have value to add, engaging with their posts. Show them that you’re paying attention. This will help grow your professional relationship beyond your emailed pitches and press releases.
In short, great public relations professionals are experts in the industry and on whatever they’re pitching. But understanding who you’re pitching to and what they need from you can be the difference maker that keeps journalists coming back for more.