Media relations has always been challenging, but when you think it can’t get any harder, it does. An informal survey I conducted with Michelle Garrett on her YouTube live show, PR Explored, found that some 84% of respondents said media relations keep getting harder. 

That’s not the only data point either. In collaboration with IABC Fellow Ned Lundquist, I’ve presented that question on formal surveys of hundreds of professional communicators in 2018, 20192020, and 2021. In every survey, the vast majority of respondents with more than 10 years of experience indicated that media relations has become progressively harder. 

There are many reasons, including journalist layoffs, media consolidation, and perhaps most significantly, the flow of advertising dollars from news outlets to digital platforms like search engines and social media sites. The question that remains is this: What can PR do about it? 

Below, I’ve penned a few ideas that might help you develop action items for your PR pitching.  

Focus on What You Can Control

We can’t control the economics of a newsroom, so it’s a better investment of energy to focus on what we can control. One of the things we can control is the generation and flow of story ideas. If PR has a superpower, it’s teasing out a good story and demonstrating its relevance. 

High-performing PR professionals tend to be ravenous consumers of news. They read trade news, watch experts, listen to industry podcasts, meet different members of their team, and talk to executives, customers, and anyone else in their sphere of influence who might have a viewpoint. 

Be sure to keep these conversations casual and informal. Avoid projecting any of the pressure you feel on your interviewees. Be disciplined about documenting ideas, even those you don’t think are too hot right now. Sometimes, you come back to those later and look at things through the lenses of new experiences. 

Double-Check Your PR Pitching Fundamentals

I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon of late: businesses will publish a news release and pay to send it over a major wire service but not include contact information. It’s bizarre to me that anyone would spend so much money trying to entice interest from reporters but leave out contact information.

If you’re missing this basic step, there may be others too. For example, make your news easy to find on your website. One way to do this is to maintain a chronological list of press releases on your site. This isn’t sexy, but it’s absolutely necessary and many companies skip this basic step. 

Keep placements or “in the news” sections separate from news releases. Too many sites want to mash everything—blog posts, news releases, ebooks, etc—under a “resources tab.” While showcasing your mentions and marketing content is great, it’s frustrating for journalists to wade through all this to find what they need on deadline. 

Other ideas here include:

  • Make contact information easy to find on the website;
  • Give reporters an option to sign up for a company news distribution list;
  • Provide assets: headshots, graphics, and screenshots readily available; and
  • Be responsive; treat it like your best customer when you get an inquiry. 

Concentrate on Contributed Article Opportunities

I’ve seen a lot of success with contributed articles recently. Publications and editors are typically open to well-conceived written ideas that provoke industry conversations. That’s the hitch too: you have to have a point of view. Thought leadership requires actual thought and genuine leadership.

A contribution that concludes readers should “buy our product” isn’t a story. Editors won’t be shy about saying as much. 

To that end, you also need to be thick-skinned. You will get rejected. Don’t take it personally. This happens to bona fide freelance journalists, too. Keep an eye on the publication’s editorial calendar and match your PR pitching to those concepts to improve your chances of getting a piece published. 

Take Stock of the Alternatives

If there’s an upside to a changing media landscape, alternatives have popped up everywhere: newsletters, podcasts, and influencers all present new opportunities. These don’t always work out the way traditional media does, but you’ve got to keep an open mind. Keep a little budget for paid influencer relationships where it makes sense. 

Considering the alternatives also means thinking differently about pitching. For example, we know Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the most popular days to pitch. So, experiment with sending pitches on lower volume days. 

Analyze Past Pitches

It’s worth reviewing your old pitches. Look to see which ones were successful and why. The goal is to reverse engineer the pitches that worked, identify what appealed, and try to replicate the success. 

Pitch analytics can also be a big help. I use a tool called SalesHandy that shows me opens and clicks. It’s very useful for deciding whether to follow up and costs me about $100 a year.

Some PR software providers also have interesting pitch analytics. Over the last few years, I’ve written several hundred thousand words on PR technology, interviewed dozens of executives, watched demos, and written reviews of the products that matter the most. Two vendors I think have solid pitch analytics are Muck Rack and Propel PRM

Conduct Data Studies 

Many tech companies with software-as-a-service (SaaS) products also have an inherent and native advantage: data. These companies can analyze the activity on their platform and develop industry benchmarks. I’ve put a business on the front page of The Wall Street Journal with such data, and they make fantastic reports. 

The big advantage is that the data is based on behavior, not opinions, as with a survey. That’s a benefit because people often say one thing on a survey but do another in reality. 

Field a Survey and Use It to Create a Report

Surveys are good proxies when behavioral data isn’t available. Yet surveys have to be agnostic and follow good research methods. Too many companies ask leading questions, and the survey concludes the industry should buy their product. Reporters aren’t going to cover that because that’s not a story. As the old adage goes, pitch a story, not a product.

On the other hand, if you ask thoughtful questions, the results contribute value to the industry and may spark an industry conversation. In this case, you are providing service to the industry while educating yourself, and that’s great PR. 

One final caution on surveys is that bots crawl survey links and answer survey questions. These are sophisticated enough that they can even defeat a CAPTCHA. I strongly recommend either using a survey panel or email to solicit respondents. If you post a link to a survey on the web or social media, bots will muddy up the results.  

Use Paid Media for Earned Media Purposes

In the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton was embroiled in an extra-marital affair that was all over the news constantly. Perhaps feeling frustrated a Democrat was in the hot seat for this, the seedy publisher, Larry Flint, took out a large advertisement in The Washington Post

His ad solicited commensurate dirt on any elected Republican, and the ad made news—lots of it. If you can look past the subject matter for a moment, the lesson is invaluable: Strategically placed paid media can drive earned media. 

One place I’ve had lots of success with this approach over the years is the social media site X, which we all know and love still as Twitter. Why? Because 90% of journalists are still on the platform and follow each other. 

I’ll set up four to five different ads, target a “like audience” of journalists I’d like to reach, and let the algorithm choose which ad to show. It’s a highly effective yet non-intrusive way to reach reporters that augments your standard of outreach.

Oh, I know, Elon this, or Elon that. Using a tool doesn’t mean you identify with the owner’s views. 

I’d encourage PR pros to experiment, too. There are other ways and means to use this approach. This is a chance to be creative and, candidly, find this sort of testing to be the best part of the job. 

Create a Playbook for Sharing News You’ve Earned

Years ago, coverage in the media was the end. Today, the fractured landscape and the rise of niche outlets mean news articles reach just a fraction of the audience they once did. This has a crucial implication for PR: What you do with a mention matters as much as earning it in the first place. 

That means sharing it far and wide— internally and externally: 

  • Email the best coverage or an end-of-month roundup to internal stakeholders;
  • Put it on your neatly organized online newsroom;
  • Share it on your social media channels – and multiple times;
  • Tag the reporter and publication and give them credit;
  • Pay to promote the article with social media ads;
  • Weave the article into blog posts;
  • Pitch the link to industry newsletters that roundup articles from across the sector;
  • Share it with industry and peer groups;
  • Create a lead generation or nurturing emails with it;
  • Mail a copy to a targeted list of prospects;
  • Bring reports to trade shows and conferences;
  • Cite the article in business presentations; and
  • In the old days, broadcast news used to drive print publications—and that can still be true—so use the article to pitch podcasts where the article serves as the basis of a conversation.

Lastly, coverage often leads to new ideas and angles. Use the placement to brainstorm other related stories to pitch. 

Use Content Marketing for PR Purposes

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve pitched a reporter, been rejected, and then edited my pitch, published it as a blog post, and seen it take off. Sometimes, it even winds up getting coverage. I’ve even gotten covered in the same publication that employed the reporter who took a pass on my pitch. 

This is an important point because you can use content marketing to build relationships and pitch people. In doing so, you can also build an audience with compound growth. Links and social shares also serve as a form of third-party credibility. 

There’s one big problem here: most people confuse marketing content with content marketing. These are not the same thing, and the difference is vast. 

Marketing has always created content and blasted it all over the web, hoping to get downloads and leads. By contrast, content marketing means running a site or blog like a news organization: you publish useful content simultaneously on the same site and do it consistently over time to build an audience of email subscribers

Because of their work with editorial contacts, PR professionals have the perfect background to do this in a way our peers in marketing often struggle to match. PR is an approach, not a series of tasks to be completed every day. 

Here are some proven uses for content marketing for PR purposes:

  • Link to content from sites that provide value and you want to get to know;
  • Mention external SMEs who provide value and you also want to get to know;
  • Interview industry SMEs for articles or Q&As;
  • Use quotes from journalist interviews that didn’t make it into the article;
  • Create a weekly or monthly roundup to curate news; and
  • Experiment with blog posts to test ideas. 

There are many other ways to use content marketing for PR purposes. PR is the best-kept secret in content marketing. More importantly, PR and content marketing need each other as the media landscape changes.

Frank Strong

Frank Strong is a classically trained PR professional with content marketing savvy. Find him on Twitter, Google+ or read more from him on his blog, Sword and the Script.

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