Secrets to Building Relationships With Hard-to-Reach Journalists

By Michael Smart, principal, michael smart pr
Michael Smart, Principal, Michael Smart PR

The day before sitting down to write this, I was on the phone with a client at a Fortune 10 company. We were going over the agenda of the pitching boot camp I was preparing to deliver to some of his communications team.

As I ticked down the elements of cold pitching I was planning to teach, the client asked me a question, which was also kind of a suggestion based on his 30 years of experience.

“Do you have time to cover the idea of calling journalists or visiting them in person and finding out what they need and giving them that?”

The client couldn’t see me, but I smiled as he went on to cite several examples of how this works for him.

Relationships: Pitching at the Next Level

That’s the ultimate in media relations, isn’t it? We want to move beyond “pitching” and into organic conversations where we assist influencers to help their audiences, which in turn helps us achieve our goals.

But obviously there are obstacles to doing that; otherwise we’d all be there already. Some of these include:

You probably don’t work at a Fortune 10 company that has reporters assigned to cover it. In most cases, these reporters readily will take your calls or visits.

You may have grown so accustomed to digital communication that the thought of picking up the phone either makes you nervous or seems out of date. In addition, you might have younger team members who are unaccustomed to working the phones with media members. To them, phoning really seems a relic of the past.

Even if you could get a target journalist on the line, you may feel you lack anything that the reporter will be interested in covering.

Overcoming Obstacles

I’m going to help you overcome those obstacles. And I’ll illustrate these how-to points with examples from my Inner Circle program’s “Best Pitch of the Year” submissions.

Every year members of the program submit their best placements. I not only pick winners, but also observe the trends behind what’s working and what is no longer effective.

The first key point is to remember that this is not about what interpersonal medium you choose. It’s not about phone vs. email vs. social. It’s a principle: You’re seeking to serve the journalist first and you simply want to know how the journalist works and what she needs so you can serve her better.

That tends to require dialogue, of course, and such back-and-forth happens more fluidly on the phone or in person. But it doesn’t have to.

Gaining Coverage Via Being a Resource

Example #1: One Inner Circle member was struggling to break through with a Wall Street Journal columnist whose interests are perfectly aligned with this PR pro’s company.

Nothing was working, so she sought solely to be helpful.

She emailed the columnist. In the process of complimenting a recent article, she offered four sources as possible subjects for future profiles, “none of whom were affiliated with our company—I was not looking to push our firm, but instead establish the relationship,” the PR pro says. “I found these folks on my own through my own network.”

Several weeks later the columnist responded. She was grateful for the sources, and—this is the key part—she explained her process to the PR pro.

The two emailed back and forth a bit more and the columnist explained her needs for these types of stories. And then the columnist asked for the PR pro’s help in sourcing a column, and our PR friend provided one of her executives and also a customer. Those were the lead quotes in the resulting column.

And she pulled that off without even getting on the phone.

Cold Calling With Knowledge

Example #2: A different Inner Circle member was getting nowhere with Business Insider.

She studied the competitors who were showing up on the site, and noted the journalist who was authoring those articles. That information helped her zero in on the right person to contact for her pitches. Then serendipity struck: Because she had an upcoming trip to New York, she reached out cold to that writer and was able to land a meeting.

Surprised? This kind of meeting still happens when you do your research and show up as potentially valuable. “I noticed that she was doing multiple posts about the same people,” this PR pro says. “When we met, I asked her how sources help her do her job and also asked about the multiple-post thing.”

The writer explained how she and her colleagues approach these kinds of stories.

“That allowed us to follow up with her and pitch for that specific structure.”

It also let the writer know the PR pro had done her homework and that she had read her columns.

Understanding this writer’s needs allowed our PR friend to place one of her clients in eight separate Business Insiderposts this past year.

Responding to Media’s Needs

In summary, here’s what our two examples have in common with our Fortune 10 PR exec’s recommendation:

Both focused on determining the media’s needs, and only then finding something they had that met those needs.

One of our examples used email to pull this off. The other took the in-person meeting route. But both demonstrated potential value first.

True, there are many nuances and skills at play here:

  • Knowing how to build targeted media lists.
  • The subtle balance required to compliment a previous article without coming off like a suck-up.
  • And the way to phrase a question around “How do you get your job done?” so you actually receive a helpful answer.

But there are plenty of PR pros who possess those skills and still are flailing around and failing. The key principle, what everything else grows from, is a sincere desire to “find out what the journalist needs and provide it to them.”

CONTACT: Michael Smart is the media pitching coach PR pros seek when they want to boost media relations success. He ad- vises everyone from Fortune 10 brands to nonprofits and sole proprietors. Learn more at: