By Francis Moran
We heard this one again last week.
Generating effective coverage of a client’s story is not all about the relationship I have with reporters; it’s all about the value of the story I have to tell.
This has long been the top-ranked of Francis’s Favourite Fictions, and for two good reasons. First, it’s incredibly widely held, believed in by clients and actively promoted by agencies. Second, it is so demonstrably untrue that after 30 years practice as both a journalist and PR guy, I remain utterly gobsmacked that it retains such unassailable currency.
Having worked the trenches of daily, weekly and monthly journalism, for both print and broadcast outlets, on both a local and national level and for both general news media and trade publications, some of my strongest and truest professional and personal relationships are with journalists. And I couldn’t lean on the best of those relationships to get a client of mine even a column inch of coverage that the client’s story didn’t merit. More to the point, I wouldn’t risk my own credibility by even trying.
But if my client’s story deserves to be in the New York Times, or on the BBC, or in EE Times, or on National Public Radio, or on the Richard and Judy Show, or in the most narrowly focused of trade media outlets, it matters not a whit whether I have any kind of existing relationship with the reporter, editor or producer who needs to be successfully pitched in order to get that coverage. It matters only that I have a deserving story to pitch and the ability to pitch it well.
And if the story doesn’t deserve to be there, all the relationships in the world ain’t gonna make it happen.
Here at inmedia, we demolish this fiction practically every time we take on a new client since we invariably are required to add new media outlets, new contacts — indeed, entire new industry sectors — to our outreach efforts. And even where we have an established record of success with any individual journalist or outlet, we don’t lever the relationship; we lever our ability to engage that journalist on the only issue of any interest to her or him: the story.
So why does this fiction persist? I blame the PR industry. Truth is, you sell what you’ve got. And if you don’t have the necessary grasp of how newsrooms operate to effectively pitch into them, if you don’t have the deep understanding of your client’s story that allows you to get past the initial objections reporters throw in your way, if you don’t have the strategic understanding of why you’re trying to generate coverage for your client in the outlet you’re targeting, then the only thing you can rely on is your so-called relationships. So you tell the prospect that relationships with the target media are a prerequisite to getting coverage and you hope the prospect is an unsophisticated buyer who will fall for that.
By Francis Moran
When I started this little tech PR agency, the world of online media outlets was still very much in its infancy. And an early fiction we had to deal with was a widely held belief that online media were some kind of a different beast from their print or broadcast brethren, and that only a PR agency that specialised in online media could reach these brave new e-journalists.
Our conviction was that these outlets might well be new but that there was nothing at all novel about a time-tested best-practices approach to pitching them, one based on pegging the natural news value of a client’s story and then pitching it only to those who would see that value. And we were right; from Day 1, our clients enjoyed the same widespread coverage online as they did in other media formats.
Our conviction that online journalists responded to same imperatives as their offline brethren actually cost us a client or two early on because our proposals didn’t specifically stipulate we were addressing them. We’d write that we’d target “all appropriate media outlets,” and assumed our clients were as canny as we were. We quickly learned to expand it to read, “all appropriate media outlets, including online outlets,” and to include key online titles in our list of examples.
Time passed and the requirement to single out these new media types passed with it as everyone learned that the same fundamental principles applied to pitching online media outlets and journalists, and that our phrase, “all appropriate media outlets” included online titles as a matter of course.
Then came blogs.
And the latest entry in a growing collection of what I call, “Francis’s favourite fictions.” Or, “Everything I know that’s wrong about public relations I learned from technology company executives.”
Here’s the latest one, tossed at me a few months back by a seasoned technology marketer who really should have known better. “Bloggers are different,” she insisted. “And only a PR agency that specialises in Web 2.0 social media can pitch them properly.”
Well, that was red-meat bait, and I rose to it. “Give me an example,” I challenged her. And she gave me two names, both of them critically influential bloggers in her company’s WiFi space with whom we couldn’t possibly develop a relationship, she said, because we weren’t a Web 2.0 agency.
I recognised one of the names immediately, and a check of our media contact database confirmed that we knew this guy very well. In fact, we first started successfully pitching to him when he was a columnist at a print trade magazine, then as a columnist for the online version of the same magazine, then as publisher of his own online newsletter, and now as a blogger. And guess what? He is just as pitchable, and he responds to the same things, now that he’s breathing the rarified air of the blogosphere as he had as an ink-stained wretch.
The second name was also in our database, and also had been for years, but we generally didn’t pitch him any more because his blog was the equivalent of what we used to call a rip-and-read outfit. That is, like small radio stations that just read wire copy for their newscasts, he didn’t do any original reporting; he just wrote about things he had read about elsewhere. A useful conduit, perhaps, but not one we’d bother pitching directly; better we get a hit in one of the media he watches and let him write about that. Which he does regularly.
Point is, in my world, the bloggers who count are either bona fide, and often dyed-in-the-wool, journalists making use of this latest communications channel, or they’re newcomers to the game who think, act, and respond to newsworthy pitches, in exactly the same way as journalists.
Problem is, too many people think like my favourite-fiction spinner. So we’re careful to once again add a phrase to our proposals, which these days read, “all appropriate media outlets, including bloggers.” This, too, shall pass.