Turnover, newsroom cuts erode media relations craft

Media relations pros have long stressed the importance of building strong relationships with journalists. But that's easier said than done in today's environment of fast-paced coverage and constant turnover.

Media relations pros have long stressed the importance of building strong relationships with journalists. But that's easier said than done in today's environment of fast-paced coverage and constant turnover.

Industry executives who pitch reporters and editors say they have to strike a balance between traditional media relations practices, such as face-to-face meetings and phone calls, and sharing compressed messages through a wider array of channels. They must also keep pace with an evolving media landscape in which reporters often switch beats, juggle tighter deadlines with additional social and digital duties, and face painful newsroom cuts.

“Maintaining media relationships is less about socializing, because everyone is constantly on deadline, and more about giving valuable information and tools that will help them be more efficient as journalists,” says Bo Park, MD at ICR. “It's less about who you know, because who you know keeps changing.”

Journalists like AllThingsD co-executive editor Kara Swisher, who has built a database of strong sources from more than a decade of covering digital issues, are becoming a rare breed, Park says. With increased workload demands and less time to devote to a topic, journalists and bloggers are more often rehashing or reworking what has already been reported, she explains.

Spite is not a media relations strategy

AllThingsD co-executive editor Kara Swisher tweeted on Sunday that she and colleague Peter Kafka, who broke the news about Yahoo's Tumblr acquisition, were not invited to Yahoo's press event the following day.

According to Swisher, Yahoo PR head Anne Espiritu said: “Unfortunately, we have limited space and are not able to accommodate everyone. We are live streaming the event, so I'll send you the link when we have it.”

Swisher, who has a long history of reporting internal company news from Yahoo, called the message “petty finally defined” in a tweet, and other critics quickly chimed in on social media.

“[Yahoo] is essentially telling the media not to do their jobs if they want to be invited to the company events,” tech blogger Michael Andrew wrote.

Media relations pros say it is essential to engage journalists despite hot-button or negative coverage.

“[Media relations pros should] make room for folks driving influence and conversation. Be as inclusive as possible in this day and age,” says Jennifer Risi, head of the Media Influence group at Ogilvy Public Relations.

Bo Park, MD at ICR, says she has counseled clients to communicate with the press even if they are a high-profile or “hot” brand generating a lot of buzz.

“There's a difference between buzz and visibility, and quality, positioning, and the right messaging,” she says. “If you're not engaging, you're going to be dragged into stories that you don't even think you should be part of. If you think there's education that needs to happen, that's not going to happen organically.”

Espiritu did not respond to a request for comment.

For example, Swisher and colleague Peter Kafka broke the news last Friday that Yahoo was in talks to buy Tumblr. Many major outlets picked up the story over the weekend, before the deal was officially announced on Monday morning.


“I'm always relationship-oriented, but what's changed is how quickly news breaks and who breaks it,” says Annie Howell, EVP of communications and media relations at Hallmark Channel parent Crown Media. “What's an exclusive anymore? [A news outlet] might have the story exclusively for five minutes or an hour, versus a day or two.”


Crown Media's communications team rarely offers journalists exclusives, Howell says. However, other PR pros say exclusives are still a useful way to gain journalists' trust and clarify their message for subsequent reports, which they might not take the time to investigate further.


“Exclusives are valuable to ensure you get the most accurate story possible by marrying your messaging and positioning, and to incentivize the reporter to write in greater depth than he or she would have because they're getting something special,” Park says.


Beyond that, Howell notes that her communication with journalists has become “more punctuated.” Rather than relying on telephone, she contacts reporters through email or social media.


“You can't expect a reporter to give you undivided attention,” she says. “I haven't had a lunch with a reporter in a long time where they didn't have to peek at their BlackBerry a million times.”


PR professionals must also think about how to help journalists expand their coverage onto social and digital channels, they say. For example, Global Strategy Group helps clients come up with alternative story angles for reporters “looking to further the original piece,” says Alex Howe, VP of communications at the agency. Olson PR is helping companies reach out to social media editors along with reporters.


“There's this new territory of pitching social media editors who can [affect] a significant audience across their digital channels,” says Olson media relations director Rachel Rischall. “Social media editors are the new powerful PR contacts.”


As part of its efforts to adapt to this changing environment, MasterCard launched a social listening platform last year called the Conversation Suite. MasterCard's PR department uses the service to monitor conversations across traditional and social media channels, says Marcy Cohen, VP of global communications.


“This informs how we reach out to journalists. Instead of shouting out messages to see what sticks, we're trying to listen and earn the right to be part of the conversation,” she says. “When you do that, journalists take notice.”


The Conversation Suite reflects how MasterCard has broadened its definition of influencers beyond traditional media. An influencer “can be a journalist, a blogger, a card holder, a merchant,” Cohen says. However, companies like MasterCard still covet coverage in top-tier media outlets, even as their appetite grows for newer channels. These outlets remain the most credible vehicle to share a company's story, comms execs say.


“I deal a lot with the C-suite, and they still want to be in the crème de la crème, high-profile traditional media,” says Jennifer Risi, head of Ogilvy Public Relations' Media Influence group. “The right mix of media relations is both traditional and social. You can't have one or the other.”


This balance is becoming more elusive as traditional newsrooms shrink, according to the 2013 State of the News Media report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The news industry has shrunk by 30% since 2000, and PR professionals now outnumber journalists, the report found.


This week, ESPN became the latest media company to announce layoffs, which could reach between 300 and 400, according to news reports. Earlier this month, The Village Voice made major cuts to its editorial department.


Amidst these changes, more companies are incentivized to speak to audiences directly through digital and social channels, rather than relying only on journalists.

“You're under pressure now in PR to be your own news outlet to a certain degree,” Howell says.

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