This was the year of adaptability for many PR and news professionals. Social distancing practices necessitated virtual collaboration and flexibility between PR practitioner and reporter more than ever before. Not only has it been a challenge to engage journalists due to shrinking newsrooms and furloughs, this year the news industry was inundated with coverage about a global pandemic, a contentious election and social injustice issues.
When it comes to media pitching, it’s been difficult to predict how or if the media will respond. Their attention has been pulled in so many critical and time-sensitive directions, breaking through the noise with other stories has been a challenge. What is clear, though, is the pandemic has changed media relations, possibly forever.
Ranked as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in the U.S., public relations professionals have had to pivot their strategies and revisit their news angles in order for the brands they represent to be present, relevant, and most importantly, helpful to larger audiences.
Something PR professionals continually navigate is that there are always other messages to compete with for newsworthiness and media attention. And whether it’s a pandemic or an election or a major holiday, it can feel futile at times to attempt to pitch the media during peak news cycles. Here are five lessons learned in 2020 that can help PR professionals find success for their clients when the media is fatigued and distracted.
1. Embrace tradition and get back to basics. PR must navigate traditional media relations with an added layer of creativity and sensitivity to whatever is currently happening. Prioritize timeliness and lead with data that puts your news thoughtfully into the context of what is happening in the world today. Also, focus on human interest in storytelling. Life events are moving fast, and people can better relate to brands when their stories speak to the human experience of the (new) here and now.
2. Show up in unexpected places. There were at least 44 thousand journalists employed in the U.S. before the pandemic. The number of bloggers in the U.S. alone is projected to have grown to 7 million in 2020. And for the past two years, Reuter’s Institute has identified voice/audio podcasting as the future of media in its annual trends report. These opportunities present unrealized earned content in many places, including traditional media and non-traditional channels. Self-publishing is also a strong consideration on platforms like Medium or LinkedIn, where there is much more control over the message.
3. Help clients find their words. “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.” This requires a caveat for today’s brands, as some companies have blundered miserably this past year by tying their messages to tragic events and then eroding trust with the media and the public. Onlookers feel apprehensive at best in taking any sort of perceived position on the issues dominating headlines today, so this is a time for PR practitioners to do our best work in helping companies find the right words and ensure they’re coming from an authentic and helpful place. The risk in not saying anything is that you’re missing from the conversation altogether.
4. Find gatekeepers where they are and help with the heavy lifting – The impact of the pandemic on news reporting has changed PR professionals’ routines in the timing, level and channel of outreach. The same is even more so for media professionals. Work schedules and office hours have been upended for everyone, so we must meet the media where they are. Some of the most successful earned opportunities this year came from PR team members reaching a media gatekeeper during non-traditional work hours and/or on their social media channels. Additionally, social distancing has made in-studio/on-site interviews shift to virtual ones, so providing media outlets with more varied and high-quality assets in the initial outreach makes their jobs much easier. PR professionals have always worked in the trenches with the media — and 2020 has required that of us even more so.
5. Give the media time – Their workloads, schedules and teams have been impacted in negative ways. Therefore, ask clients to also be patient. Help them understand what the media are going through. If an announcement is major, and your client is insisting that it receive media attention, put it under embargo to give media time to plan for it. Giving media this window allows them to get organized, schedule quality interviews with subject matter experts and file their story by deadline. By treating media like coworkers, defending their bandwidth and helping them find the space to do a great job, their success becomes our success.
At the end of the day, PR is not about creative control. It’s about being a collaborator when we conduct outreach, and providing media with fresh ideas and reliable, factual information. Right now, the best place to work from is our values. Be ready to offer something good, like a problem your brand is solving, or something that simply warms the heart—because everyone needs that right now, too. If we do our research, and look at our work as a strategy and not a tactic, PR opportunities abound.
Lisa Martin is the public relations director at Grady Britton, a values-based marketing agency in Portland, Oregon. She has 15 years of agency experience leading PR and social media teams and has also taught various undergraduate courses in communications.