A newly released national study of 12,000 editors and reporters holds some surprises and reaffirms conventional wisdom on the relationship between public relations professionals and the news media. It also challenges us as PR professionals to "listen to the customer" to improve our results.
The study, conducted by Cision in conjunction with The George Washington University Masters in Strategic Public Relations program, received 745 responses to a series of questions covering preferred sources and principal contacts for story ideas and how journalists prefer to be approached by PR people. The respondents represented all major media, including newsmagazines, newspapers, Internet-based and the broadcast media (for more on the study's findings, see "Charting the Industry" on page 2).
The results lead to strong agreement on a number of key issues. First and foremost, there was a message that public relations professionals need to sharpen their pitches in order to increase their effectiveness. The two areas of pitching cited as needing the most improvement were: relevance to the journalist's beat/areas of interest and adopting a less promotional tone.
Other "areas for improvement" included:
Clear statement of the benefits for the target audience;
Stronger story ideas;
Covering the "5 W's" in leads;
Better writing overall; and,
The study also offered a strong affirmation of PR's importance in shaping editorial content, as respondents named PR professionals as the most common source for a story, (94%) second only to corporate Web sites (100%).
Not All Journalists Linked In To Social Networks
Also, and perhaps surprisingly, the study revealed a lack of reliance on social networking sites and podcasts by the press as a principal source for story ideas. However, in our view, this does not suggest these sources are less credible or valuable to other stakeholders or that they are not used by reporters for researching and preparing their stories.
Many of them revealed that social networking and related sites play a role in developing stories, but also noted that they do not replace direct contact between the journalists and a trusted PR source.
So, how do you become that trusted PR source for target reporters? To begin with, consider taking the following approach:
Avoid blast faxes to all media who might (or might not) be interested in your story idea;
Research and identify the media that reaches your audience;
Read it regularly and look for trends or areas where you can add value to the discussion;
Contact the reporter(s) when you don't want or need something from them (hint: this is why it is called "media relations");
Ask what they are working on, let them know what you have to offer and see if you have common ground;
Send your pitches as simple text only, include links to sites, blogs, etc., (if credible) and allow the reporter to "opt in" if they are interested;
Social media can help here--if your company/client has a blog or uses Twitter, for example, offer that link/info to the reporter; and,
Stay with it--maintain contact informally (social media can help here as well) and bring ideas/suggestions to the discussion periodically.
By following this approach, you will get better results and build a mutually beneficial relationship with reporters. You will also be doing the rest of us a favor by showing them that PR people can listen and learn and that we are willing to change/improve our practices.
Meeting In The Middle
An understanding of the mutual challenges that both public relations and media professionals face--along with a commitment to improve materials--can be useful in answering these challenges and creating a better product for all the stakeholders in this process.
However, there is little use in asking the "customer" (for example, the media) for areas to improve if we are not willing to do something about them once they have been identified. So, how are we going to respond as a profession?
Clearly, part of the answer to this question is working harder by working smarter. In addition to maintaining high standards for our account teams, communications departments and for ourselves personally, sustained improvement will require a commitment to improved training and staff development.
Admittedly, this is a tall order in the current economic times, but it is achievable on a limited basis. Many professional associations offer off-site and/or Web-based training and development, which can be completed with a minimum of disruption in the daily work of our staffs.
For others, seeking a more formal option, there are a number of programs at leading universities offering advanced degrees in public relations studies. Many of these schools also offer online programs to accommodate the career development needs of working professionals.
Either way, the public relations profession faces a critical challenge. We can embrace this input from the media and invest in training--albeit on a limited basis. Or, we can let a golden opportunity to elevate the PR profession and its effectiveness pass--and regret it later. PRN
Larry Parnell is director/associate professor of the
Masters in Strategic Public Relations Program at The George Washington University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To download copies of the Cision/George Washington University report, visit http://www.gspm.org/files/final_gw- cision_media_report.pdf.