Media relations still plays a major role in the work of PR practitioners. Alexandra Bruell uncovers some of the latest trends and influencers in a few key areas
In a world where beat reporters wear many hats and the White House communicates policy via late-night TV and Twitter, PR pros specializing in healthcare, politics, and finance can no longer rely on a simple relationship-based model for successful media placements. Facing the realities representative of a new administration, the shifting media landscape, and a down economy, they must reevaluate their messages, key contacts, and outreach tactics.
Nick Ragone, SVP and director of media at Ketchum, says that in financial and business media relations, the message must now revolve around post-Lehman topics, such as bailouts, corporate governance, and personal finance.
“The day Lehman went under literally has marked a demarcation point in financial business coverage,” he says.
Ragone notes that business coverage has not declined as much as lifestyle and regional media. He adds that despite cutbacks at broadcast outlets, “national and local market broadcasts are more willing to listen to a pitch because they have fewer resources, but have to fill more time.”
To reach key outlets, Ragone explains that PR pros must be more to the point, and the company's message must capture the mood of the country. He says an appropriate message might be, “The company is not in the industry impacted, but it's still outperforming the market.”
For Ragone, key business and financial journalists include Laura Petrecca at USA Today, Katie Benner at Fortune, and Ali Velshi at CNN. He also suggests reaching out to Evelyn Rusli at Forbes.com Digital Network, who he describes as “a rising star.”
Scott Mills, CEO of the William Mills Agency in Atlanta, agrees that traditional outlets are still influential, and he often leverages non-traditional media to reach those entities. He notes that business publications like Bank Tech News are now active on Twitter, as well as business social networks such as bankinnovation.net. He cites a spreadsheet management client who posted a comment on the network and scored a placement in BusinessWeek.
“We consider [social networks] the media,” says Mills. “They're delivering news, and we have the ability to comment, or encourage clients to comment, on stories.”
Jano Cabrera, MD in Burson-Marsteller's DC office, says clients focusing on issues management and informational campaigns – especially in energy and housing – are relying more heavily on media relations to reach political audiences in a diverse media field.
“In years past, you'd just hire a lobbyist,” he says. “Now, [we need]... a public relations strategy to reach key Washington outlets such as Politico and The Hill. [We] know that members of the [political] staff read these publications.”
In a now “varied sphere of influence,” Cabrera includes Dan Volts at The Washington Post, Mike Allen at Politico, and NBC's Chuck Todd.
He adds that PR pros are tweaking client messages to highlight their political standing and appeal to popular partisan journalists. The influencers, including Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Lou Dobbs on CNN, reach a younger set that – partly due to the recent election – is showing more interest in politics.
Alternative outlets, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, late-night TV programs, and Facebook, also reach this audience.
Scott Widmeyer, CEO at Widmeyer Communications, agrees that a younger audience – teens and 20-somethings – have a newfound interest in politics.
To reach them directly, PR pros now must target online outlets such as The Huffington Post, Politico, Facebook, and Twitter, and communicate via simple language and “a new kind of sound bite” –namely, 140 characters.
“[Young audiences] have told us, ‘Give it to me in easy, digestible bites,'” says Widmeyer.
Regarding traditional media, he notes there are one-third fewer political beat reporters. “Half of [those are now] jack-of-all-trades generalists,” he says. “The other half is probably gone completely.”
As a result, suggests Widmeyer, there's an upswing in expert contributor opportunities for clients.
He adds that to actually impact an issue, clients still need mainstream media placements. Widmeyer suggests targeting Robert Pear at The New York Times, Dan Balz and Ceci Connolly – who often merges healthcare and politics – at The Washington Post, and, depending on the client, left- or right-leaning influencers, such as Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh.
As with business and politics, healthcare is one of the hottest topics tied to current events.
“Our contacts are changing quickly,” says India Chumney-Hancock, VP and GM at Vollmer Public Relations. “We're working with more reporters that don't have a background in healthcare.”
As a result, she says the firm must tell a client's story as it relates to the
long-term health of patients and consumers and what's going on politically, rather than just announcing a new service or technology.
Chumney-Hancock notes that PR pros must also be more proactive in building relationships and offering clients as experts on current issues.
“When there was a big issue about physician payment tied to Medicare, we said [to the Houston Chronicle], ‘We have a physician who'd like to write an editorial on this,'” she recalls. “They said yes because they had already met us.”
She lists The Wall Street Journal's Vanessa Fuhrmans, Monica Perin at the Houston Business Journal, and The Washington Post's Connolly as key influencers.
Peter Pitts, partner and director of global healthcare at Porter Novelli, agrees that a client's message must be related to long-term health.
“We want clients to understand that a successful media program must be based on the benefit of public health,” he says. “That also means collaborating with patient groups and with government.”
He concurs that there are fewer designated healthcare reporters than in the past, but cites The New York Times ' Gardiner Harris and Susan Dentzer from the Health Affairs blog as key influencers.
Pitts also suggests targeting blogs like Drugwonks.com – where he and others focus on regulatory affairs and drug policy, and touts 30,000 readers per month – to attract traditional media, and gauging if mainstream media will be interested.
“The job of a media outreach effort is far more complex than in the past,” he notes. “Media is no longer an audience, it's a conduit.”
Tips for effective media relations
Pitch clients as experts or contributors, especially to outlets that have been particularly hard hit by layoffs and consolidation
Communicate left- and right-leaning client messages to attract partisan journalists on cable networks and to reach a broad audience
Keep pitches short and simple when tackling complex political and financial issues
Target blogs and industry social networks to reach mainstream influencers like The Washington Post and The New York Times
*The title of this story in print appears as "Finding the right target"