How we stop hating PR

It's common sense not to pitch journalists with stories they have no interest in. Yet we do it all the time.

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Getty Images

We know better than to bludgeon journalists with stories they've neither asked for nor shown interest in covering. We know that what's a big deal to a client isn't necessarily newsworthy. We know, in our bones, that one-size-fits-all approaches rarely yield exceptional results.

Yet, we act counter to this common-sense all the time.

PR pros are seen as the bacteria that feeds on the pond scum of communications professionals. We're often labeled as vapid pawns in the back pockets of agencies and clients or barricades to meaningful journalism rather than bridges to insightful people and perspectives

I worry that my 2020 PRWeek Woman To Watch status may get revoked with this confession. But I really wrestle with this line of work. My biggest takeaway from the last year is that PR can't revolutionize PR for the better by itself; it must be in partnership with the clients we serve and the journalists we pitch to.

Only 1.5% of respondents in a 2019 Muck Rack State of Broadcast report would define their relationship with PR people as a partnership. Nearly 40% labeled the interactions as either "a necessary evil" or "antagonistic, but not inherently a bad thing."

It's time to set the record straight

In our hunger for headlines, maybe we've lost sight of the bigger picture: impact. We are the gatekeepers of new ideas, radical organization moves and whiz-bang creations. At our best, we aren't just getting ink—we're inspiring and educating and creating change. But if that's true, why do so many PR professionals I speak with feel icky about our trade when we should be approaching it with wonderment?

The problem is we're not really talking, we're congregating in our separate circles; journalists talking to journalists, PR peeps gabbing with each other and brand marketers clinging to their like-minded peers.

You may get two of these groups together, but not three. And when we do talk, it's only to get the job done. We rarely take time to discuss how we can shape and pitch and tell better stories together.

Who of you reading this would be down to join a recurring forum, where rotating panelists of PR professionals, journalists and brand communicators talk it out?

We could hash out ways to help brands be present and proactive with the press, getting journalists what they need faster. We could extend our knowledge about our clients' business priorities and initiatives beyond what we're pitching (this means challenging conflicting narratives and orchestrating a news cadence that feels cohesive and builds upon a narrative versus a scattering of disconnected stories and views).

And we could commit to reasonable experimentation with our tactics and approaches. I'm ready to make it happen. Reach out if you'd want to join: katie.walley-wiegert@martinagency.com.

Until then, here are three ways we can begin to come together with real talk and tough love.

Craft brave pitches to break through

When I get a golden opportunity to sit and chat with a journalist, one of the first things I do is ask them about their rules of engagement. Do they have any pet peeves or communications preferences? Ideally, how many days would they want between an initial pitch and final publication? What stories are they hungry to cover, but haven't been able to find the right angle or subject matter expert? How many pitches, on average, are they receiving each day?

In the last year, I've had over 100 meetings with journalists representing about 40 different publications. The average number of daily pitches the group receives lands at 350. I know an associate editor at an advertising trade tapping out closer to 750 pitches a day.

Snappy subject lines and laser-focused copy aren't a nicety, they're a necessity for breaking through inboxes. There shouldn't be a disconnect in the tone and tenor of what you're pitching and the pitch itself. Yet, I've heard so many PR pros vent about pitches getting pulverized into a snore fest of their former selves.

And when clients over-process every word, how comfortable are they in allowing PR people to tailor pitches to individual journalists?

But you can't fault clients for not knowing what they don't know. Instead of sneakily changing that pitch copy (which PR peeps do but don't tell said clients) how about giving them the foundational knowledge needed to reshape and up their respect for just how challenging earned media is?

Every bit of ink you land is hard fought. There are no gimmes with journalists. And it's disheartening when people push to get press like it's some gold star for a job well done. However, few people outside of the PR bubble understand this.

Remember, journalists owe us nothing

Even pre-COVID, news outlets were shedding staff at alarming rates. US Census data shows PR pros outnumber journalists to the tune of 6: 1. Consider that 80% of journalists surveyed in Muck Rack's 2020 State of Journalism report said only "a quarter or less of their stories originate from pitches."

In tracking my own pitch adventures, I can tell you that 75% of the press I didn't land all came down to timing. I reached out to a contact without the capacity to cover.

Are you educating your ecosystem of clients and peers on the media landscape, letting them know what's landing with the press, and what's falling short, and why?

Journalists aren't on our payrolls. They don't owe us responses to our pitches or reasons why they aren't covering what we're pushing. And the only things they are required to change in their coverage are inaccuracies.

Here are two ways I've tried to better meet journalists and clients where they are. First, I ask journalists whether they're open to giving feedback about pitches globally. And I respect that preference.

Then, I play change or chance with clients. If a client is pushing for a hair-splitting copy change, I question whether this is a change or chance moment. If a journalist isn't tracking with a nuance about your client, it could be a bigger opportunity.

For example, if a client delivers from grocery stores, but a journalist only noted how they deliver from restaurants, don't try to force the fact into an existing article. Instead, lean into a whole separate effort on that part of your client's services. Then credit the journalist with discovering the opportunity.

Seek to understand before being understood

Journalists are fallible, too. I've received Saturday requests from reporters with breakneck deadlines. I've had journalists promise to cover things before outright ghosting me. I've had a reporter tell me that her publication would never cover what I was pitching, only for it to get picked up by her boss.

I also thought there was only one definition for exclusive until I spoke with three journalists representing the same publication who all had different interpretations.

And in some ways, journalists have empowered the monstrous behaviors PR folks employ, because at some point those tactics worked.

Still, I can read every article a journalist writes and I can stalk the hell out of them, but it doesn't replace a single one-on-one conversation to pick up the nuances of who they are as humans. There's often one random detail separating a sea of restaurant and foodie reporters from the one who's right-fit to cover news from a particular client on Martin's roster.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. It's also cemented how we're all busy as hell and are just trying to do our best. Relationships and networking still trump everything else.

I'd be lost in this profession without the journalists who've taken precious scraps of time they don't have to tell me about how they work. A hearty second goes to fellow PR professionals who've steered me with sage advice.

By Katie Walley-Wiegert, associate director of brand communications at The Martin Agency.

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