Relationships, The Perfect PR Storm And A Lesson From Tommy Boy

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that media relations — at least as it is envisioned by really old white people wearing slacks and sending deeply rewarding facsimiles to reporters — just might be a dying practice. Yes, technology, digital media and consumer information gathering habits have changed every aspect of media and marketing. But at its core, media relations has always been about relationships, and it would appear the perfect storm of the modern media environment and culture of today’s Millennial is going to change the face of PR even further.

snapchat_PostLet’s first get a baseline, beginning with the media industry. Suggesting that much has changed across the landscape would be like saying Americans don’t mind stupidity after looking at Nielsen ratings for Karadashian-branded television content. After all – Ben Bradlee would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew the Washington Post was trying to break news on Snapchat in order to increase follower numbers.

But alas, between 2003-07, consumers began fleeing traditional media sources (with a few exceptions) and became far more comfortable getting information from blogs, friends in social media settings or non-traditional online influencers. At the same time, Craigslist began decimating newspaper revenues and the erosion of television funds from a shift to online ad buys started to shrink the pool of journalists like water from a California lake. This, in turn, piled even more work onto the reporters who were left in the newsrooms to meet a broader channel demand.

“The changes in the news business in the last dozen or so years impacted me more in terms of technology, opening more doors to more kinds of coverage (such as email newsletter, articles online, blog posts),” said Stuart Elliott, who recently retired after a decorated career covering advertising for The New York Times. “Thus requiring more work of me and my colleagues as we wrote many more total articles than we had when there was only the print edition.”

It meant fewer reporters, each covering more beats and having to produce content for a wider variety of channels, which often equated to less opportunity or interest in covering niche stories pitched by PR people.

At the same time, the nature of today’s Millennial has led the generation to communicate altogether differently than just 10 years ago. Whereas I met my now-wife at a bar right after college, today’s 22-year-old often starts on Tinder (Hello herpes!).  When I visit Washington, D.C., I make a point to have dinner or drinks with friends from NPR or Bloomberg and we invariably talk a little shop. Conversely, today’s Millennial struggles to pick up the phone for a conversation, instead using electronic messages for nearly everything and anything, no matter what level of importance.

“So many of today’s conversations have become one-sided monologues rather than give and take dialogues,” Dr. Erin Shannon, a St. Louis doctor of clinical psychology, told me when discussing the issue. “And so, as a result, we now see a generation markedly lacking in everyday social skills that before had considered to be common sense.”

Thus two forces meet in the crosshairs that is perhaps killing the effectiveness of PR: Reporters are now fewer and further between and Millennials struggle to engage in actual human relationships. So is all lost for PR? I’d like to think not. But how do you address this professional challenge for a practice that relies upon creating these trusting relationships? A few thoughts from the mind of what is apparently a quickly-aging warhorse:

1. Get off the couch: Mistakes happen. We’ve all sent the wrong pitch to the wrong reporter at some point and had our hands slapped. But being as relevant as possible in pitching is essential if you want someone to pay attention. So take the time to find the right reporters, research their beats beyond your often inaccurate Cision report on who covers what, and ensure the pitch topic is appropriate for the journalist you seek out.

“Really the biggest hurdle is whether the PR person has actually read something I’ve written — and not just the headline and first sentence, although that’s still better than nothing,” said Justin Fox, who created Time Magazine’s “Curious Capitalist” blog and recently left the Harvard Business Review as its editorial director to join Bloomberg as a columnist. “Beyond that there are lots of nuances and gradations, but that first one knocks out 98 percent of the field.”

2. Know your audience: Get to know the key reporters you’ll be pitching before you need to pitch them. Ask them how they like to be pitched, if they mind a periodic call, do they like dogs or cats, bourbon vs. Scotch and whatever else you can ascertain.

“It’s important to make sure you know exactly what the reporter’s beat is,” said another longtime Bloomberg reporter.  “We’re all busy, and it’s just not efficient to have an exchange about a topic that I simply can’t cover. Just keep your pitches relevant to me, short and to the point because we don’t have time to read through a lengthy email to grasp the pitch that I may not even be able to cover even if I wanted to.”

3. Take mouth, speak into phone, articulate thoughts: Many reporters get 300-400 emails daily and it’s hard to keep track of email traffic unless they really know the sender of an email. So don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and actually call someone. With the exception of Fran Drescher, the human voice is a lovely and amazing tool.

“One of the most effective approaches I’ve seen is when a PR person emails me and asks if we can have a short conversation,” the Bloomberg reporter added while we were speaking on an actual phone. “It’s often better to have that phone conversation than communicating through email as it’s more personable.”

4. Be compelling: Stand out from the clutter, be unique, compel the journalist to want to pay attention. And don’t send the same dreadful pitch with the same worthless subject line and the same half-page-long pitch that’s too long for anyone to read. Make your subject unique – “Not the worst pitch ever” – keep your pitch to 2-3 sentences, and send a visual like an infographic or video link.

“You need something that’s compelling,” a veteran NPR anchor told me. “And it’s incumbent upon you, the PR person, to make it compelling, unique, and make me pay attention. At NPR we have to do the same thing that you have to do — we have to have something interesting and compelling for our audience that has a narrative.”

5. Be real: Don’t suggest your pitch is the most vital piece of information that reporter will ever get. It’s not, unless your email somehow collectively solves HIV, Cancer and America’s aforementioned Kardashian problem all in one fail swoop. Just be realistic, be honest and you’ll get a far warmer reception.

“Acknowledging that the ‘fantastic media opportunity’ is probably just a nice pitch like many others goes a long way,” said a senior ESPN producer. “Being realistic about things makes me much more likely to say, ‘cool, we can make this work for both of us.’ But trying to sell me on something I would never buy makes me not want to do any business at all.”

I’ve never been of the mindset that there is only one way to do things as processes and function continually evolve. As such, today’s PR is a far cry from the days of brisk slacks and fax machines (although I do keep a healthy supply of bourbon in my office).  Media relations practitioners therefore must continue to reimagine their approach, hold onto some of the relics of the past like periodically speaking to other human beings, and the industry must step up its game in order to break through the clutter, garner interest, and remain relevant. Yet in understanding and accepting this evolving landscape, one thing will remain constant: Media relations success is built on a foundation of relationships — real, trusting ones that are developed through interpersonal connectivity, finding common ground, mutual respect or likemindedness.

“No question — the relationship thing is definitely the key,” the NPR anchor added.

While Elliott believes that it has never been more incumbent upon PR people to earn the trust of reporters.

“It is very important for PR folks to earn the trust of reporters, and has always been,” he added. “Maybe more so today than in the past because of the intensified pace of work and all that everyone has to do these days multitasking and such.”

For young PR pros, consider the words of David Spade, who while sitting with Chris Farley in a diner in Tommy Boy, imparted a sales 101 speech that hits the fundamental reality of today’s PR on the proverbial head.

“…you had confidence and that’s what it takes to sell,” Spade said. “There’s street smarts – the ability to read people – and you know how to do that. Just like your dad. He was that best at knowing what people wanted to hear and knowing what people needed to hear. And that’s what selling is all about. In a way, these people are buying you.”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post appeared earlier this week on The Bulldog Reporter. 

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