If you told me in February, this pandemic was coming and how much it would change daily life, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was skeptical until early March, but soon realized I was wrong. School for my son was postponed “for two weeks” on March 13; he finished the year online on May 8. I was already social distancing on our farm, but suddenly everyone was, and remote work was the new norm.
When COVID-19 overtook all of our attention spans, it felt like no other conversations were happening. And rightly so. The level of lousy pitching rose to an all-time high as reporters continually took to Twitter to air their grievances. As PR practitioners, we do our fair share of crisis communications, but this effort became even more challenging when the ground was continually moving under our collective feet.
Though it’s been tough, it’s also been an incredibly valuable learning experience, one which continues to provide lessons -- even ones we won’t realize until we can get a macro view of all that has happened in 2020. That said, here are a few takeaways for approaching and working with the media.
Find a fresh angle and perspective
It should go without saying that before pitching any story to a news outlet, determine topics and coverage alignment, and most importantly, ask yourself what will the reader get out of it?
One of the biggest pet peeves of reporters and editors is receiving a pitch idea unrelated to anything they would write about or irrelevant to their respective audiences. A pandemic is no exception. You need to fit into their focus area, which requires reading and creating a fresh perspective that will engage them in a discussion.
As I mentioned earlier, COVID-19 articles were everywhere, the majority being some sort of “how to XX during a pandemic.” It seemed challenging to present a different perspective at times, but we discovered journalists were more than open to it -- they wanted something new, too. That is, so long as it was an angle any other reporter hadn’t already covered.
Fresh angles catch a reporter’s attention, pandemic or not. That may mean digging harder to find the right story, but when you do, you’re more likely to connect.
Help when you can but leave them alone
We’re all in new territory. You can’t always tell how someone is feeling, and as we all know, tone can be hard to communicate over text or email. Many news outlets are short-staffed; editors and reporters were already facing challenges before COVID. So, be patient, responsive, empathetic -- and having thick skin doesn’t hurt.
Also, know when to make contact. The best gift a reporter can get is to be left alone.
Most people won’t understand that advice but our firm of senior-only professionals knows this all too well. We hear our fair share of reporter complaints about less experienced PR folks inundating their inboxes with bad pitches. Edit and check yourself. If you cannot be helpful or don’t have anything substantial to pitch, leave them alone and go back to them when you are confident the pitch will resonate.
Try to figure out what your media contacts will want from you and how to make their work easier -- and be quick about it. Don’t take a week to answer one question or schedule an interview.
Check social media accounts, which is often where reporters ask for sources. Provide knowledgeable interview subjects who recognize not every conversation will result in coverage. Once you become a reliable resource for an editor or journalist, not only will coverage follow, they’ll be more likely to share your contact information with colleagues.
Further, prepare yourself and your client for briefings or interviews. Editorial focus can change quickly given the current news cycle, so be ready to respond to follow up inquiries immediately. You don’t want reporters or editors to invest time in your story, only for it to become irrelevant because of delays on your end.
Ask them what they need
Instead of sending an outright pitch to a reporter, another tactic is simply to ask what they’re working on and see what you can do to help. This only works when you have already established trust and built a relationship with the reporter. Don’t ask a reporter you don’t know how to be helpful -- that’s your job to figure out.
Ways to help include offering expanded resources, finding sources for their particular story and providing access to information to finalize an article. If you’re able, you can offer assistance even if the topic doesn’t relate to what you are working on for clients -- that can kick off and build upon a relationship.
Finally, some reporters might not have much to do with pandemic coverage or it’s not in their wheelhouse. They might be able to use some input to make that tie-in. If you can do so, you can create the best solution for both of you. Of course, you’ve got to do so without being too invasive or manipulative. Anything less than sincerity and helpfulness right now can damage a person and a company’s reputation.
There is no industry unaffected in some way by the pandemic and media relations is no exception. Be yourself. Be real. Be empathetic. And as my grandmother always said, “Be sweet. You can catch more flies with honey!”
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