So far, my career has seemed to me to be a natural progression. I studied journalism in college. I worked my way through a number of local papers before being asked to handle public information duties for a New Jersey city at a time when newspapers were cutting everything from inches to editors.
From there I worked for three public relations agencies and in the in-house PR department of a major corporation. All of it made sense to me. I was a member of the media, so who better to help politicians or businesses interact with the media? After all, I respect what they do.
Sure, I knew some of my former news colleagues would taunt me for “joining the dark side.” I knew the stigma of being a “PR flack.” But I also knew my roots in journalism were too strong to allow that to happen.
And I’m proud to say that I’ve held true to my roots. Using my institutional knowledge and my inherent knowledge of how journalists operate, I’ve established relationships with high level journalists who respect me as much as I respect them. And when I’ve explained my newspaper background to skeptical reporters, they are apt to let down their guard, allowing me to better connect with them on a professional level.
Having never studied public relations in college, I always wondered how it was taught. And after sitting in a conference room talking about media relations with a group of interns recently, I realized that journalism and PR were still being treated as mutually exclusive, rather than mutually dependent, enterprises.
Exploring a little further, I tracked down the Public Relations Student Society of America chapter at my alma mater, the University of Delaware. Of the seven students on the executive board, only two had declared a journalism course of study, and both were minoring in it. These two students were probably the only chapter members to have faced a newspaper deadline and to have interacted with journalism professors.
Media relations will always be a key component to any effective PR campaign, so it’s imperative that public relations professionals think like journalists. The problem is that hardly any are trained for this. Most PR majors have never stepped foot inside a fast-paced newsroom, have never had to pull a story together in 20 minutes with an editor breathing down their neck. They probably have never sat in a news van helping a production team edit clips for the 5 p.m. news, stood with a producer on on the studio floor editing copy for a teleprompter or spent time with a copy editor who’s struggling to come up with a headline for the front page. Fortunately for me, I’ve done all of these things. Some more than a few times.
So here are a few tips as you set out to pitch a press release or a story idea that will allow you to find common ground with a representative of the media and to get the feedback — or placement — that you need to keep your client happy.
- Read their stories and give feedback. Reporters like to know they are being read. And PR pros are supposed to read their stories. Drop them an e-mail even when you don’t have a pitch to tell them what you think. Tweet their stories even if your client isn’t mentioned. They will remember this and will be much more likely to respond and provide honest feedback in return.
- Respect their expertise. Some reporters have been on their beats for several years. In some cases they may know as much as, if not more than, your client. Respect that. Don’t send a pitch that insults their intelligence, especially about their beat. They will see right through it.
- Pick up the phone. Many reporters, especially the more established ones, do not rely solely on e-mail, as is the case with many young PR professionals nowadays. They actually call their sources on the phone to pick their brains for story ideas. So you should do the same. Putting a voice and a personality to the name behind an e-mail goes a long way in terms of distinguishing yourself from other PR professionals.
- Get personal. Reporters are people too. And they have other interests than what they write about. So if you notice on Twitter or Facebook that you share a passion for a sports team or a movie, don’t be afraid to comment on a game or recite a line of script. Showing them you’re interested in who they are beyond just a means to an end will increase your chances of getting that placement.
- Rapid response. Reporters keep strange hours. Some only respond to e-mails first thing in the morning; others only later in the evening. If you notice a particular pattern, tailor your outreach accordingly. If a reporter responds at 9 p.m. at night, respond back, even if it’s only with a quick thank you. If a reporter knows you’re quick to respond, they will remember that when they need a source on deadline.
John Yocca is an account supervisor and a media strategist with Beckerman. You can follow him on Twitter @jyocca.