I recently attended a panel featuring both PR experts and journalists that revealed (and brainstormed ways to solve) the disconnects between companies and the media who cover them.
The panel was part of the “Truth on Trial” series presented by CommPRO and hosted at the George Mason Schar School of Policy and Government in Arlington, VA. The panel featured:
- Lisa Ross, President of Edelman, Washington D.C.
- Peter Carson, Managing Director of Public Affairs, North America at Weber Shandwick | Powell Tate
- Steven Pearlstein, Columnist for The Washington Post
- Gabriel Debenedetti, National Correspondent for New York Magazine
The main takeaway: we need to get the “relations” back in media relations. Both sides acknowledged that these relationships are a give and take and that shrinking resources on both ends have contributed to the current situation.
The reporters mentioned a significant level of skepticism when companies proactively reach out about a story because they’ve found corporate media relations is increasingly set up for crisis communications only or to push their own agenda.
Conversely, when media is proactively reaching out to brands they are not finding positive reception. The brands want “their message” covered and do not see the value of being part of a broader conversation.
Companies need to understand the incentives and motivations of reporters – they don’t want to push promotions and help sell products. In turn, reporters need to understand the motivations of businesses, and together they both must understand what their audience is interested in to come together and craft a great narrative.
The PR Pros’ Perspective
Carson empathized with executives who are hesitant to talk to the media for fear of being asked a question they don’t want to answer, especially with CEO tenures shortening, but also said this is a mistake and predicted a ‘pendulum swing’ toward an increased focus on earned media.
Indeed, Ross advises her clients that they must be accessible and tell the truth to the media as consumers are demanding that their brands, and particularly CEOs, express a point of view and articulate their corporate purpose. But she also acknowledged that it is a two-way street and companies must know they can trust journalists to write fairly.
As communicators, if we must increasingly rely on the media to help express our values to our stakeholders, how can we overcome their skepticism when pitching?
The panel shared a few insights:
Understand Motivations and Personalize Pitches
Debenedetti stressed that before sending a pitch email, make sure you understand the specific reporter’s motivations, incentives, and audience.
This is a great opportunity to leverage data about how the author has covered this topic or industry in the past – have they written positively recently? Do they often quote spokespeople? Have they covered your competitors but not you?
This data will help you prioritize which authors to pitch based on their interests and can be used again when tailoring your pitch to show them you know them – the key to building that coveted relationship.
Take Advantage of Trade Pubs and Local Media
The PR experts on the panel suggested using demographic and outlet information to inform your media relations strategy. Think about the message you want to amplify and which audiences are interested in it. Take advantage of trade publications and local outlets where you can get ultra-targeted with your audience.
An added benefit, the panelists point out, is that these journalists are experts in their communities or the industry. They truly care about the topic and value what you have to say, making them less likely to ask your executive a question he or she doesn’t want to answer about a scandal that they thought was already put to rest.
Building relationships with local and trade outlets can be a good starting point for executives who don’t have as much experience with the media and want to hone their media presence and increase their visibility.
After you’ve made this initial contact, it’s all about putting in the time and effort to build those trusted, honest relationships that are mutually beneficial to both sides. I highly recommend watching a video replay of the panel here.