What it Takes for Media Relations Success in a Post-COVID World

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New Normal

·        Media relations remains a time-intensive activity but there are many who don’t understand that. They think with social media and texting, it should be faster to get pitches out to reporters. And many companies think that what they’re announcing is newsworthy. Years ago, a client of mine at IBM sat in a hotel room while I was making calls through a list about a good but not great announcement. He got to hear the pitch and also how reporters were responding. I got some interest but mostly struck out, and I was concerned because I don’t like doing that in front of an audience. Instead of being upset, however, the product manager said: “I had no idea it was that difficult. I thought because it’s IBM, they would write about the news but now I understand” based on the conversations I had that “it’s not enough that we think it’s news.”

Since that time, media relations has gotten more challenging. Clients don’t know it because they often don’t see the process (as my client did so many years ago) so here are some recent thoughts about what success takes:

·        Most news stories have a short shelf life. If you have only one shot to make a first impression, we have only one shot to pitch a story as newsworthy. That means: we need to pitch a new story each month.

·        It takes time to research, develop and package a new story each month. We may need to speak to a subject matter expert (SME), talk to a customer, do some research to understand a new regulation or provide context to a new milestone. After a little development work, we may find that the story isn’t ready to be told yet – there’s been a delay, a new executive at the sponsor, etc. – so that we need to find a new topic. We know how to move quickly but just getting on an SME’s schedule can take time.

·        With top-tier reporters, we may need to customize the pitch. To get reporters’ interest, we may need to customize pitches based on what they have written about previously, and we do need to emphasize different elements depending on who we’re pitching because trade, regional and local reporters have different requirements. For example, a trade reporter may be interested in talking with a well-known scientist at corporate headquarters in a different country but a regional or local reporter will want to talk with someone local.

·        Pitching reporters takes time. There are ways to send media pitches to a broad swath of reporters, and even to find out who opened the email and who of those clicked on any embedded links. But we still need to spend time emailing and following up by phone. We also may spend time checking out a reporter’s recent blogs and Twitter posts to see if they’re around – for instance we’ve seen when reporters are on vacation or are traveling or on book or maternity/paternity leave so know to move to the next media target. In the sales world, that’s known as smiling and dialing, and it just takes time and focus, even if we’re just leaving voicemails. And because of COVID, reporters are harder to reach since many now work remotely. That’s why, sometimes, a reporter who says “No,” is more valuable than a reporter who says “Maybe.” With a “No,” you can move on but with a “Maybe,” you need to go back again to the reporter when the fact is that “Maybes” rarely translate into “Yeses.” But it takes time to assess.

·        Scheduling an interview requires coordination. If a reporter is available and interested, we still need to schedule time for the interview. We prepare a background document, with key points to make and recent articles the reporter wrote to prep the executive. We sit in on the call to take notes and follow up with both the executive and the reporter. We then send additional information or photographs, as appropriate, to the reporter.

·        Following up on a story requires finesse. Recently, a freelance reporter interviewed a client, and then it took six weeks for the article to appear. We checked in with the reporter a couple of times, then had to continue to monitor the publication until the article appeared because we don’t want to nag the reporter, who probably does not have control of when the story gets published and probably already has moved to the next story. Just as we don’t want to nag reporters when they’re considering whether or not to write a story, we don’t want to nag them before publication because we want to build a relationship with that reporter for that client. That’s where the finesse comes in. 

There are other aspects that make media relations challenging. With our experience, we know how to play the game and we continue to love to put points on the board for our clients. We know how to work with the media — the point of this blog, however, is to help show some of the factors that enable successful media relations efforts.

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