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AUGUST 6, 2018 //     

Media relations – how to stack the odds in your favour

By: Harry Ronaldson

“I hope you’ve got a strong liver for all those boozy lunches.”

This was the reaction from my father when, a little under 15 years ago, I told him I’d got a job as a trainee PR exec. The idea that PR was all about plying journalists with alcohol until they agreed to write a story about your client still retained a tiny grain of truth back then. And I was pretty good at it.

But somewhere along the line, things started to get a little more serious. Journalists stopped coming to the pub and phone-calls went unanswered. I realised I’d gone 72 hours without drinking.

Securing quality media coverage has become progressively more challenging over the years, requiring a blend of creativity, flexibility and tenacity. I like to think I’m still pretty good at it. But I have to work harder at it. And I’m not the only one who thinks things have gotten tougher.

A recent survey of communications professionals found just over half (51 percent) said they thought media relations had become harder in the past year. Just 3 percent thought securing media coverage for clients had become easier.

There are some solid reasons behind this. For one thing, the pool of journalists and media are getting smaller. According to the annual British Labour Force Survey, the number of full-time journalists in the UK has fallen by 11,000 in the past year, with 73,000 now employed in the sector.

While the number of professional journalists continues to dwindle, the volume of people wanting to pitch them stories has continued to expand. Recent estimates suggest there are somewhere in the region of 4,000 PR agencies in the UK, and 83,000 full-time employees.

With journalists now outnumbered by the people wanting them to cover stories, the competition for media coverage has intensified. One journalist I speak to regularly told me he receives an average of 300 pitches a week from companies and their PR representatives. He writes around three stories per day, of which 50 percent are in some way PR-driven. So, of the 15,000 pitches he receives in a year, roughly 14,500 end up in the deleted items folder.

An old boss of mine once told me media relations can sometimes feel a little bit like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, only there are 100 other people trying to pin their tail onto one donkey. The trick, he told me, is to make sure you’re the only one not wearing a blindfold.

Competition for coverage might be fiercer than ever, but the rewards of reaching your audience through a trusted third party remain significant. Here are a few ways to stack the odds in your favour:

Get personal: Firing out a generic pitch to a long list of media contacts is a waste of time. Rather than trying to create the world’s most exhaustive list of contacts who might cover your story, focus on the journalists that matter most and familiarise yourself with the content they’re putting out. You want your reporters to feel like you’ve read what they’re writing, and that you’ve truly chosen them for this story based on what you expect they’d be interested in. Do they write long features, or do they tend to focus on straight news? Do they like to include case studies in their articles? Do they have a particular writing style? Gather together this type of information and use it to craft your pitch.

Be timely: Few companies have the luxury of being able to set the news agenda. The vast majority will need to demonstrate how they fit into the wider events, trends and issues that influence news output. That means keeping a keen eye on the news and being ready to react in real-time whenever there’s an opportunity to insert your point of view. Likewise, if you’re thinking about putting out an announcement, factor the news agenda into your planning at every stage. Is there a broader issue you can hook into to give the news a sense of urgency? Can you say something in your quote that roots your story in the here and now? And unless there’s a specific reason for releasing a story on a particular day, be flexible. If there’s big breaking news, then pick another day to go out. Or give the story to a journalist to mull over for a few days before it goes live. Most journalists will respect clear embargos and will appreciate the breathing space this affords them to plan in a story.

Show why you’re different: It’s not enough to be the biggest or the fastest. Your job is to convince a journalist you have answers to questions that no other brand could articulate. Take blockchain, for example. Right now, journalists are bombarded with generic, high-level content on the issue. But few companies can provide specific and detailed answers to the myriad questions which sit under this topic. Once you’ve identified a set of issues you want to own, drill down deeper until your position becomes something that’s unique to you and credible for the journalists you’re trying to reach.

Show an opinion: Journalists want experts who can help them to articulate an issue in a humanising and interesting way. Once they’ve found people who can fulfil that role, they keep coming back for more. Establishing yourself as a go-to commentator doesn’t have to mean taking an extreme point of view. Delivering something out of the ordinary can be as simple as showing a clear personality, avoiding industry buzzwords and answering questions with insight, new information, personal experience or a customer reference with no direct mention of your company. Still unsure? If you’re providing a written comment, then read it aloud. Does it sound like something you would actually say? Would you say it to a friend, or someone you’d just met? If the answer’s no, then start again.

Get to the point: You live and breathe your product. You could probably write a book about it. But if you can’t sum up what you want to say in a few lines, then all that enthusiasm is going to fall on deaf ears. One legendary tech journalist tried to force the issue by insisting PR people pitch him only on Twitter. Needless to say, he was none too impressed when Twitter upped its character limit and promptly announced his retirement!

Good coverage is certainly harder to come by than it was when I first entered the communications industry, but good spokespeople and stories remain highly prized by journalists who are under pressure to deliver a quality product people will pay for.

Get your approach right and you’ll quickly find journalists are seeking you out, rather than the other way around.

Harry Ronaldson is a VP in Allison+Partners London office.

This blog was originally posted by Notion Capital.

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