PR’s obsession with media coverage

Public relations is more than publicity and press hits. Communications pros should look beyond journalists and instead target their organization’s audiences.


This piece originally appeared on PR Daily in January 2015. It might shock you to hear this, but “media relations” is not synonymous with “public relations.”

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Note that the words coverage, media, and pitching are not found anywhere in that definition.

If you asked a person on the street or many PR pros for a definition, however, they would surely say something about press coverage.

The PR industry wasn’t founded on getting coverage. Most versions of the profession’s history include two-way communication with the public, along with informing, educating and influencing audiences. Though many early PR practitioners used media coverage as a tactic, coverage was a means to an end. It helped them reach people.

Fast forward to present day PR. Many practitioners list media coverage as a goal. Sometimes PR plans consist entirely of coverage, including it as a tactic, strategy, goal and even an objective.

It’s the wrong way to develop and plan, but happens frequently. Why is that?

Media coverage vs. reaching audiences

Pursuing coverage has become a default for the PR industry. Does your client have a launch, announcement or any bit of interesting news? Pitching and obtaining coverage becomes the easy solution, and proves PR efforts brought value.

Though getting coverage for your employer or client is hard work, it’s become easy to rely on pitching as the basis of a PR program—and unfortunately, sometimes it becomes the entire program.

The industry’s reliance on media is an example of PR’s strategy problem. When informed of an upcoming announcement and asked for a plan to support it, most PR pros think immediately of potential people to pitch. They want the announcement to reach the maximum number of people.

Why isn’t more thought put into who actually needs to know about the announcement (potential consumers of the company’s products or services)?

Many PR pros think they’re doing this by segmenting and targeting the publications they pitch.

However, audience targeting, segmentation and prioritization is more than doing a search for an industry’s trade publications. It’s having a strong, intimate knowledge of the people who could purchase a product or service.

The press is very rarely a company’s audience, but too often PR pros look at journalists as the target rather than a vehicle for reaching a target.

Many PR pros are very good at media targeting. They know you can’t send blanket pitches to a long list of journalists. Pitches need to be personalized so that a journalist knows you follow them and understand their coverage interests. They take the time to get to know journalists professionally and personally.

Apply this knowledge to targeting customers.

Just as a blanket pitch sent to a journalist not covering your company’s industry is deleted, a similar thing happens when an article appears in a publication that doesn’t reach your company’s target audience. Advertising Week covers the advertising industry, but that doesn’t mean advertising professionals who could buy your product or service read it.

If coverage appears in a publication your target audience doesn’t actually read, it doesn’t count as coverage. Target the reader, not the publication or the journalist.

Educating executives

Imagine an executive comes to you, asking for a PR plan to support an upcoming announcement. You compile a plan that doesn’t simply rely on media coverage to carry the announcement, but instead targets your audience.

Many executives would ask, “Where’s the media plan? What’s the plan for coverage?”

PR pros might be tempted go along with the executive and add press targets, even if the announcement doesn’t need media coverage to reach the company’s audience. Though you created many ways to reach people directly, you might now have to cut these in order to meet the plan’s budget and still gain media coverage. Soon the plan is diluted, but it appeases the executive—even if it doesn’t support the company’s broader goals.

It might be easier to go along with an executive’s demands than it is to educate the executive, but ask yourself: Is getting thousands of press article views more powerful for a company than getting a large, global customer?

Though the answer depends on the company’s objectives, and even though press coverage feeds egos, an executive would probably appreciate sales much more.

The value of PR

PR pros have long known it’s hard to justify their value. In the past, the easiest way was pointing to press articles. We took on advertising metrics and touted circulation, subscribers or views to combat the ad numbers.

But that time has come and gone. We now have tools at our disposal that allow us to not just support, but drive sales. We should embrace these new methods.

The PR industry lost its creativity—and some of its business relevance—when it became too reliant on media coverage. Media is still a valuable communications tactic, but it’s just one piece of our job, one tool in our arsenal.

We must go beyond PR stereotypes and media reliance. We can solve problems, meet business objectives and both support and drive sales. We do this by embracing new communication vehicles.

It’s time for us to adapt, evolve and move forward.

Kevin York is a technology industry veteran and founder of Kevin York Communications. A version of this story originally appeared on the firm’s blog.

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