The importance of positive communication with the public and managing a good reputation go back to the dawn of history but the first real “PR specialists” emerged in the early 1900s. And since then, communications professionals and journalists have been inexorably intertwined. They’ve been intertwined because the PR industry was born out of a growing recognition of the power of the media.
One of the forefathers of modern PR was a former journalist by the name of Ivy Lee. He introduced the term “public relations” and pioneered the modern press release and in doing so laid the groundwork for what the industry of PR evolved into. For most of the 20th century, he may as well have coined it “media relations” instead of “public relations” because the media reigned supreme and journalists were the gatekeepers to mass communication with the public. Communications professionals had to earn coverage for our clients and the companies and organisations we worked for. If what we were selling to media wasn’t working, it fell at the first hurdle with a simple “no” from the journalist. Persuading the most cynical to endorse our position whether it was a new product or our side of an issue led to engagement with the public that was far more powerful than paying to place our position. It’s this heritage of earning coverage that differentiates us from others in various marketing disciplines.
Fast forward to 2017 and we’ve been empowered by advances in technology to truly become “public” relations professionals. We’re communicating with the public through more and more owned and paid channels and we’re seeing earned channels being bypassed entirely by brands, celebrities, politicians and notably by one celebrity politician.
Globally, trust in media is trust in media is in decline and here in Ireland it fell from 39% to 29% in our most recent Edelman Trust Barometer. Media is now seen as the least trusted institution in Ireland and this is bad news for PR. Although our work has diversified, the media is a core channel for PR and we must support strong journalism. The social proof provided by media is immeasurably more valuable for the vast majority of organisations than relying solely on paid and owned communications.
At the annual PRII media and industry event, “What Grinds My Gears: Perspectives from the frontline of Journalism and PR”, I was part of a panel discussion with Colette Sexton of the Sunday Business Post and Mark Paul of the Irish Times to discuss how we can work better together. Moderated by former journalist Joanne Ahern of DHR Communications, there was some great points raised by the guys and some very interesting questions and points raised from the audience.
Here are my thoughts on how media and PR professionals can work better together:
Make better connections
Whether you’re working in-house or in agency you should be making it your business to get to know the journalists that will cover your stories. When I say “get to know” I do not mean just trying to set up coffee or lunch with them to pitch them ALL your clients/company news, what I mean in the first instance is getting to know what they cover, what they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in. As an industry, we’re not allowing ourselves enough time to properly peruse the outlets and journalists we’re pitching our stories to. As a result, we’re clogging up inboxes and we have only ourselves to blame if our quality stories are rightly overlooked because of the spam we’ve sent previously. If we know the journalists better and provide them with a consistent stream of content that works for them, their editors and their readers then we’ll all benefit.
When it comes to the coffee meet, we all know the PR people who go through phases of excessive media outreach, usually tied to review time at work or a recent chastisement by the boss for lack of media contacts. They go hard and heavy and invariably go into the meeting with the journalist reeking of coverage desperation, “You must chat to client X” or “My company has a great CSR programme that your readers would love to hear about”. The coffee meet up should be to solidify a relationship not start one. It should be a two-way exchange, not a glorified, excessively long and cringe pitch.
Understand each other’s roles better
There are some journalists that assume that the only job of a PR professional is to write the press release, send the press release and then be available for the day to respond to media queries arising from said press release. Similarly, there’s PR professionals who assume the journalist sits at the desk all day, has a few stories to write and should be fine to take a call to see if they got that press release they sent earlier. The reality is different.
Taking the time to understand each other’s roles better will lead to much more mutually beneficial relationships. At its most simple level, knowing when is the optimal time to send your announcement allows the journalist time to give your story the write up it deserves. Compare that to sending it too late, the journalist wants to write about your story but doesn’t have the time or worse they’ve already gone to print.
Furthermore, as communications professionals armed with the understanding of our role and the media we work with. we need to stand up to clients and internal audiences and tell them what’s news and what’s not. Too often, communications professionals are trapped in a client/company bubble and they have a distorted version of what warrants news. Objectively looking at media and what’s covered, you will know that just because your boss wants to see his company announcement in the Sundays does not mean it deserves to be there. If you’ve built up capital with the journalists you deal with though there can be scope to get that coverage under the right circumstances.
Understand each other’s pressures better
The majority of journalists need to get their stories out fast and seamlessly. The last thing they need is silly mistakes like spelling, incorrect figures or grammar issues in the collateral provided to them from the PR person. It’s their name on that byline and if they’re using material from a PR person that’s incorrect or wrong it’s their reputation that gets the heat in the newsroom and/or from online commenters.
Similarly, PR people are juggling numerous projects, clients and issues. There’s some journalists that think a delay in response to a query to a PR person is an intentional act of subterfuge. The reality is oftentimes far more mundane. You’ll have a PR person, dealing with a client/internal boss, dealing with an internal stakeholder to provide expertise or comment approval. If any one member of this chain is otherwise engaged there’s going to be a delay in responding. Screaming at the PR person is not going to fast track the response time.
Make each other’s jobs easier
Anticipate the requirements of the other party before engaging. Clarity is key. From a PR person’s perspective, anticipating the questions that media may ask and ensuring your spokesperson is well briefed is key. Doing the basics right and ensuring you have everything you need whether it’s high res imagery or data the journalist needs before pitching.
From media’s perspective, sharing as much detail as possible that will help get the interview/request over the line and will also save you from a lot of back and forth with the PR representative who is fielding questions from internal audiences. This can be as simple as sharing expected publication date, what you need, what times work for the interview and the areas you’d like to explore.
For both parties, being upfront and honest is the key to a long and fruitful relationship.
Martyn is an account director in the corporate team of Edelman Ireland, the Irish office of the world’s largest PR company. He blogs on all things PR here and shares jobs in the industry here. You can follow Martyn on Twitter at @rosney.