The contentious relationship between journalists and publicists is not new. Neither are the myriad articles and tweets that criticize the PR industry. But the global pandemic has fueled a new wave of journalist frustrations about the way publicists do their jobs.
Admittedly, many of these criticisms are valid. Publicists: Get the journalist’s name right, do your research and read the room.
However, both industries will find greater success in these times if they approach each other from places of appreciation and congruence in their mutual goal of informing, comforting and sometimes entertaining an increasingly anxious readership.
Media and PR are two sides of the same precarious, symbiotic coin. If the current climate has made it difficult for publicists to pitch journalists on behalf of their clients, who also are undoubtedly struggling, in a sensitive, appropriate way, recognize that it’s equally hard for non-breaking news writers to pitch their editors and spin their normal beats into something that feels salient to the current moment. That is, of course, if they still have editors to pitch at all.
Across the country, advertisers are slashing budgets and media companies are reporting massive pay cuts, layoffs and full shutdowns. Meanwhile, PR firms are being hit hard, too, and New York agencies specifically have withstood the worst impacts in terms of lost revenue, canceled contracts and employee layoffs.
One change that came about after the pandemic hit was finding a way to provide even more value to journalists. Reach out to journalists for honest conversations about how they want (or don’t want) to be pitched in these times, how their beats have shifted and how the past month of turmoil may have permanently changed the media industry—and, as a necessary byproduct, the PR industry—for years to come.
Having these transparent, often difficult conversations on an individual basis is instrumental for any PR business. Here are some more tips on how the two can work together better in these times.
Be helpful, creative and strategic
Don’t pitch the same story you had planned in your editorial calendar from two months ago. Take this opportunity to pivot to support your clients in new ways during this moment of panic and uncertainty. Act as their partner, not their consultant, by using your storytelling expertise to explore ways that they can tangibly help their communities and beyond. Liquor and vanilla brands are creating hand sanitizer; restaurants are opening their doors to nonprofits; bike companies are lending their products to people in need. How can your clients use their services or products to help others? These are the stories that readers are yearning for and which journalists are reportedly eager to be pitched.
Be cognizant of reporters’ needs
Many journalists are still in the midst of covering urgent, breaking news stories around the virus right now. This could include sharing news around products or services that have pivoted to accommodate the pandemic, how COVID-19 is affecting lives across the board and actionable advice on the pandemic. Consider how your clients can be of service to these stories.
While some publications are almost exclusively covering the pandemic, others are business as usual. Do your research to know who is writing what, and develop a targeted, transparent pitch that acknowledges the journalist’s beat and current reporting. Starting your note with a quick “Hope you’re faring OK” goes a long way.
If you don’t hear back, they are likely not interested. It’s time to go back to your research to find the right reporter.
Be cognizant of the news cycle
Realities are changing daily. We are now weeks into work from home orders across the country. As such, many journalists have shared that they are now working on telling larger narratives around the long-term effects of COVID-19 across mental health, the economy and more. Be proactive today, but think ahead for weeks from now, too.
Be part of the story
We are aware of the age-old PR motto of staying out of the story to avoid controversy. This pandemic is affecting everyone, and that means everyone has stories to share with the world. Sharing these stories will actually unite people and brands through a crisis.
Most of all, be authentic. Don’t try to shoehorn a COVID-19 angle into a pitch—full stop. If you find yourself doing that, invest your energy back into how you can be helpful, and then go back to the drawing board.
Attacking the PR industry in a way that doesn’t offer concrete feedback doesn’t help make the system better. Shaming publicists by name in a public setting won’t make them pitch better or even differently. There have been countless stories in the last several weeks about industries that are pivoting their offerings to meet their customers and communities where they are during these difficult times, and I propose that journalists and publicists begin to do the same.
Journalists, be patient with the publicists who are facing increasing pressure from panicking clients and lost revenue. Publicists, write smart, sensitive pitches, and focus on helping your clients pivot to new offerings or stories that can make an impact.