Pitch-Perfect Media Relations Gives PR a Head Start in Tough Economy

By Brian Parrish

Early in their careers, successful public relations practitioners master the balancing act necessary for effective media relations: reconciling their clients' messaging needs with publications' editorial requirements. Even in the best of times, this is no simple task.

But in today's tough economic environment--further complicated by a rapid reduction in the number of media outlets and increased pressure to demonstrate PR's value--effective media relations has become more challenging than ever.

According to an October 2008 study released by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, collective newspaper circulation was down 5% from the previous year. This reduction has caused outlets to cut staff, especially in the newsroom. For those journalists who remain employed, jobs responsibilities are expanding and beats are changing.

At first glance, this tumultuous environment seems worrisome to the public relations community. Upon closer review, however, it may present an unprecedented opportunity. Even more than before, we can serve as a vital resource for journalists, extending their reach and feeding the news pipeline. Ultimately, we may even be able to secure more and higher quality coverage for our clients.

Key to achieving success, however, is ensuring that journalists view our efforts as collegial and our contributions as valuable. This means making an effort to develop a relationship with these media professionals that goes beyond business as usual. To build and maintain strong relationships with media, consider the following strategies and tactics:

*Be congenial. When a new contact joins the editorial team, place a call to introduce yourself. After this initial outreach, occasionally touch base, even--or particularly--if you don't need anything. You can accomplish this by simply complimenting the journalist on a story he or she wrote, or asking for a professional opinion on emerging topics and industry trends. These connections will help you to establish a dialogue with the journalist that may open doors and bring new opportunities to light.

*Expand your networking horizons to face-to-face opportunities. Although relationships with journalists are often established through e-mail or over the phone, don't overlook other opportunities to make connections. Media tours and trade shows are not only great occasions to get clients in front of the press, they are also opportunities for you to further connect with a journalist.

Without a doubt, you will work with more than one client during your career and, typically, journalists will be affiliated with various media outlets. These partnerships will serve you well far into the future.

*Be pitch perfect, both on- and off-line. Don't forget the art of the pitch, regardless of your target media. Even digital media professionals such as bloggers require nuanced pitching efforts, lest they overlook your story or, even worse, write a damning piece.

Once you have developed a relationship with a journalist, pitching comes with its own set of rules--some as old as the public relations profession itself and others a bit more thought-provoking. The heart and soul of "selling" a story, of course, is understanding the publication's audience and editorial style. Your effectiveness likewise increases if you refer to current and relevant events in your pitch. The reason is simple: Journalists like issue-based PR because it is easily tied into the publication's other stories. Along the same line, take the time to ensure you target your pitches to the appropriate journalist.

*Be captivating and relevant to your target audience. The very act of pitching a story can also significantly affect your success. Make sure information displayed in the subject line of your e-mail is specific but succinct. "Story idea" does not compel an editor to read your message. Specifics about the idea and how it fits with an upcoming issue will. It is the age-old difference between a story covering "dog bites man" and one about "man bites dog."

Likewise, keep the pitch short and to the point. Now more than ever, journalists are pressed for time. Deliver your idea quickly, enabling your contact to make an effortless decision about relevance and value.

*Be essential in order to become their go-to source. The inverse of these recommendations is also true. Guard against wasting a journalist's time with a story that does not fit the publication's domain. Pitching inappropriate story ideas causes you to lose credibility, eroding the chances that future pitches will be viewed seriously.

Other dangerous areas include overpromising and hounding. At times editors will ask for your help in a pinch (if you have built credibility). Before you agree, make sure you can deliver on what you promise. Likewise, you need to strike a balance between helping and hounding. Repetitive calls and e-mails will only aggravate.

Working with the press is all about the relationships you build and manage. Remember that no two journalists are alike, and it is to your advantage to get to know the writer or editor, working with each in the way he or she prefers.

By building a lasting relationship, both you and the journalist will be able to count on each other. This will help you to position your clients as thought leaders and valued contributors, prove your worth to your clients and support the journalist's objectives by providing newsworthy articles. PRN


Brian Parrish is the vice president of Dodge Communications, a public relations and marketing firm that specializes in healthcare and technology. He can be reached at [email protected].