Fiction: It’s all about relationships

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This the next in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from November 2007. We welcome your feedback.

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.

And since newsrooms are the ultimate game of musical chairs, where today’s technology reporter is tomorrow’s entertainment editor, you’d also better hope that the music never stops and leaves your trusted relationship stranded.

Here’s what a PR agency should be selling: The ability to investigate and understand the client’s strategic business objectives and how, or even if, they will be served by generating media coverage. From there, determining exactly what that the story is — and at inmedia, where our mantra is, “Your whole story gets told,” we understand that the story is usually much more than today’s announcement — and where it needs to be told to achieve that strategic progress. Then, fearlessly pitching that story to the right media targets, knowing as you do so exactly why each target should be interested in covering it. If you have the ability to put all this together, then your very first words to a target reporter establishes a level of trust, confidence and professionalism that trumps relationship every time.

Does this mean that here at inmedia we have no valued relationships with journalists? Of course not. After nine years focusing exclusively on B2B technology ventures, we have forged extraordinarily effective working relationships with scores of reporters and editors across a broad swath of the international trade and business media. Where we have them, we capitalize on them to sharpen our pitch and get to the point just that much more efficiently. And where we don’t have them, our fundamental skills rapidly establish us as trusted brokers of real value.

Bottom line: The only thing that has any currency in a newsroom, the only thing any journalist cares about, is the news value of the story. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t understand the news business.

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