29th April 2022
27th January 2021 - Journalists are customers, not the enemy
PRs can build better relationships with journalists if they think of them as customers.
That’s a hugely contentious statement that will stick in the craw of some on both sides of the divide, but the reality is that PRs won’t achieve anything for their clients if they’re not focused on delivering a great service to their journalist contacts.
It’s fair to say that the relationship between journalist and PRs can sometimes be a strained one, as the two camps often have different agendas and objectives, which is why building customer service-focused relationships is so important.
So, where to start?
Listen to your customers
If PRs want to deliver a good customer service experience, then there’s no better starting point than listening to your customers – and the good news is that journalists aren’t backwards at coming forwards offering advice on the subject.
A survey report published in the Press Gazette summed up the divide between PRs and journalists with the headline:
The crux of the article states that 46% of journalists disagreed with the statement that “A significant majority of PRs are up to the job”. That’s a bit of a clunky statement really, but we get the point that half of journalists think that PRs are crap.
The article then lists a series of comments by journalists about PRs, including:
“Lots do not know what makes a news story, omit essential information. Send releases in claiming to be news when they are weeks old…”
“Language in releases is frequently indecipherable marketing bullshit dutifully reproduced to please the client without any thought of the end reader or recipient.”
“The majority of PR contact is poorly-conceived, badly written or worded and lacks any sense of how journalists will consume the material.”
“They think their job is to gate keep and to pester journalists, not to facilitate the communication of information from their organisation to the wider world.”
Some journalists take a different approach. Influential regional business journalist Sam Metcalf is a master of using Twitter to take light-hearted sideswipes at ham-fisted PRs who send him news stories for TheBusinessDesk.
A quick scroll through @Sam_Metcalf on Twitter has such gems as:
Pot, kettle, black
OK, so there’s clearly some work to do by PRs on the customer service experience front, but before we look at how to build bridges (spoiler alert – the comments above give plenty of clues), the survey also asked PRs for their comments about journalists. Here are a couple of choice comments:
“I know that journalists have never been under greater pressures with their workload/volume of media enquiries. But, when we spend a lot of time researching a journalist opportunity, craft a tailored pitch, it would be great to have some acknowledgement that they received it, and an indication of whether they are going to run or not.”
“Local journalists who think they are the Second Coming but who don’t fact check – PLEASE just email me & ask, it’s my actual job to help you.”
This one made me laugh out loud:
“Journalists who bitch about PRs and how lazy and worthless they are – who then turn around and throw a strop because they don’t get free Wimbledon tickets from your brand.”
Instead of a hackneyed step-by-step guide to building relations with journalists, it’s probably better to look at what good PRs do (and don’t do) to demonstrate how they deliver a good service to their media customers.
What good PRs do
- Know the media landscape – the best piece of advice that any journalist can offer a PR is to read the journalist’s work. That applies whether the journalist edits a publication, writes a particular section of a publication (such as the business pages) or is a columnist for one or a number of media outlets. And the PR shouldn’t just read one edition – they should read the back catalogue of the journalist’s work. That way, the PR can not only get an understanding of what is important to the journalist but can also develop ideas for where and how the client’s messages will fit. As well as reading previous works, a lot of media (particularly trade media) publish their forward features for the calendar year and set out what topics they will be covering in which editions. This is a simple but effective tool for PRs to plan content in advance.
- Know the deadlines that journalists are working to – these can vary wildly between print, digital and broadcast media, and navigating them can be something of a minefield, even for experienced PRs. The best rule of thumb is to issue a press release (particularly if the story is going to multiple media) before lunchtime. The same goes for phoning journalists.
- Understand that journalists’ inboxes are under siege – in many ways, a journalist’s inbox can be something of a lucky dip because the sheer volume of press releases they receive means that not all emails are opened. Like most people faced with a mountain of emails, they scan for names they recognise – so a fundamental part of a PR’s skill is to build relationships so that a journalist will prioritise opening their email over others. Equally, the subject line of the email (usually the headline of the press release, which should include the client’s name) should be pithy enough to pique their curiosity. Depending on the strength of the relationship and the gravity of the story, it may be advisable to call or message the journalist to let them know that a story is on the way – but this tactic should be used sparingly.
- Recognise that one size doesn’t fit all – good PRs understand the needs of each media outlet and tailor what they do accordingly. A simple example of this follows on from the point above about pithy headlines in the subject lines of emails.
“ACME Company’s new machine to double widget production” – this is a great headline for trade media, but the same basic story needs to be adjusted for other media audiences who have different news agendas. Regional business media are far more likely to bite at “Derby widget firm to create 10 new jobs after £100,000 investment in new machinery”.
- Craft news stories that can be used as is – the biggest accolade for any PR is to get a press release or feature article published word for word. Yes, there are those who say that the shrinking sizes of newsrooms mean that journalists have less time to take a press release and rewrite it. However, by providing a consistent flow of information that is newsworthy, well written and tailored for that publication, a PR can be of great service to journalists. The end result of building relationships with journalists is that your client’s messages get conveyed accurately.
What good PRs don’t do
- Peddle dud stories – this is the single biggest thing that neither clients nor journalists fully get about PRs. Poor stories don’t benefit anyone: clients get peed off that their news isn’t hitting the headlines and PRs can get blackballed by journalists. The PR’s skill is to work with clients to manage expectations, develop another angle on an existing story or move on to something else that is more newsworthy. The easiest way to do this is often to categorise a client’s news into two broad categories:
- Self-published – stories that are fine to publish on the client’s own website news feed or blog as well as being amplified on their social channels.
- For publication – stories that have sufficient news value that journalists will use them.
- Send blanket emails – this is one of journalists’ biggest bugbears. To explain, some PRs use the functionality of media databases to send out press releases en masse. And from what I’ve heard, some systems are pretty good at getting around spam filters, but they’re still bulk emails. This is often then compounded by PRs contacting journalists with those dreadful “Did you get my email?”calls. OK, sometimes we do have to do that. Something that’s more time-consuming but works well is to send a personalised email to each journalist. That way, as mentioned earlier, it gives the PR the opportunity to tailor the news story to each journalist, thus having a much better chance of getting the story published.
- Make stupid mistakes – one of Sam Metcalf’s gripes is PRs sending large image files to accompany news stories via WeTransfer. He’s never going to go to the trouble of downloading files to see images. PRs should either attach reasonably small images or include a link to a selection of images on a platform like Dropbox.
Do you get the picture now?
The above lists of dos and don’ts are by no means exhaustive, but they offer some good pointers. By following these, you won’t go far wrong in building relationships with journalists and delivering a great (customer) service to them – for the benefit of your clients.
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