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The Media Relations Struggle is Real; Experts Describe What it May Mean for PR

Where some see diminishing value in media relations others see opportunity; the best way to improve results is to use a combination of pitching, content and social media

The media relations struggle is real. Some 60% of respondents say media relations is harder or much harder compared to last year – while about one-third (35%) say it’s about the same.

That’s according to the 2021 JOTW Communications Survey, which polled 300 communications professionals. These are veteran communicators too – about 88% of respondents have 11 or more years of experience as a professional communicator.

The multi-year trendline on this question suggests it’s not getting any easier (here are the survey results to this question in 2020, 2019 and 2018). There are several approaches to managing the challenges.

For example, when a task gets harder in business, most leaders make a change or strive to do something different. Perhaps invest in people, research or tools to help facilitate media relations.

On the other hand, they could also cut the program entirely. Like it or not, turning that effort off and spending the money elsewhere is an option.

The JOTW survey found that about one in three (29%) organizations are investing more in media relations. At the same time, most respondents (60%) said their organizations will put about the same investment into this effort.

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Why Media Relations is Harder

In prior year surveys, we’ve asked PR pros why media relations has gotten harder. The answers ought to be familiar to anyone working in the industry and include the following:

  • Shrinking newsrooms
  • High turnover in newsrooms
  • Databases and mass email
  • Disasters and politics crowd out other stories
  • News itself has changed – it’s far more salacious
  • Polarized audiences
  • Growth in PR – though I believe this is more nuanced.

There’s a statistic floating around for the last few years – sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – noting there are six PR professionals for every journalist. I believe the nuance is this is really an explosion in DIY PR and digital marketers moonlighting in PR. They don’t pitch stories but beg for links and make other nonsensical requests (I get these every day too).

There’s no chance a bona fide reporter (or reputable blogger) will bite. However, reporters still must wade through all these messages – hundreds a day in some cases. These overshadow even relevant pitches. PR is competing with inbox fatigue.

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What the media relations struggle means for PR

Regular readers know I’ve worked on the JOTW Survey in collaboration with Ned Lundquist for the last four years. This year we tried something new and invited several contributors to analyze the survey results.

I found their answers around media relations interesting because several contributors have very different takes. Here are their answers in alphabetical order by their first name.

1. Comprehensive strategy required.

“These results validate the importance of having a comprehensive strategy that does not rely on media relations.”

Karen Swim, PR, Marketing and Social Media Consultant, Words For Hire, LLC and President of Solo PR Pro

2. Diminishing returns.

“For various reasons – mostly inertia and tradition – organizations still place the same value on media relations, despite the fact that it’s grown much harder and – on average – delivers diminishing returns. Silver lining: the upside is greater for the relative few who excel.”

Michael Smart, CEO, Michael SMART PR, LLC

3. A good story is still a good story.

“What I found interesting is that in spite of all the pandemic-related coverage, journalists continued to look for other stories to cover as well. In my mind, it underscores that a good story is a good story – and if you pitch a journalist for whom it’s a fit, they’ll respond well to that at any time.”

 – Michelle Garrett, PR consultant, Garrett Public Relations

4. A case for more media relations resources.

“Part of the challenge to media relations is the extensive time pros require for their craft, which it seems we are getting less and less of. Although investment remains the same in some organizations, it could be a point of leverage when asking for more resources if pros have been able to prove success over the past year with increased priorities. ‘If I was able to achieve these things during a challenging year with normal resources, imagine what we could achieve with 10% or 20% more?’”

Stacey Miller, Senior Director, Communications, Auto Care Association

5. Third-party validation.

“The fact that media relations is harder does not diminish its value. Third-party validation is still more credible than all the content marketing and brand journalism in the world. A recent Pew Research study found more Americans now see the media’s influence growing. That’s just one good reason to redouble our efforts by employing the very best practices and avoiding the worst like the plague.

Not too long ago, a consumer product company was contacted by the Washington Post, which sought interviews for a positive story on the company. The company’s response: We’re sorry, we don’t have time. They were convinced their own brand journalism was adequate but building the goodwill you can get from earned media remains important; that company may regret its decision one day soon.”

Shel Holtz, Director of Internal Communications, WEBCOR Builders and Co-Host of the For Immediate Release podcast

6. Demand for expertise

“If an organization is investing less in media relations despite its importance being ‘about the same,’ when half the respondents are saying ‘it’s harder,’ the question is: why? Are they seeing results that matter from other marcom tactics? I don’t think media relations is ‘dead,’ I’m seeing increased demand for that expertise.”

Shonali Burke, President & CEO, Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc.

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5 ways to improve your media relations efforts

I find the commentary from all the contributors to be germane. Taken in aggregate, I think these views point towards the idea that pitching alone isn’t enough to drive earned media coverage anymore – it takes a combination of factors working together including:

  • Good pitching hygiene. Be timely, relevant, and transparent in pitching. Make sure what you pitch is newsworthy. Pithy notes with compelling subject lines usually work best. Research reporters and reach out to the right ones. Fewer more targeted pitches are better than mass emails. Use embargoes and exclusives sparingly. This stuff shows up in surveys of journalists over and over. It’s not new, but then, it doesn’t seem to get better. There’s an edge in pitching hygiene.
  • Be easy to cover. Businesses are hard to cover these days. If they even have an online newsroom, they tend to bury the news, make contacts hard to find and aren’t responsive to reporter inquiries. Reporters aren’t going to wait around for you – they’ll either move on, or they’ll fill in the gaps with another source. You may not like how those gaps are filled in. See also 10 PR Tips for Making Your Company Easier for the Media to Cover.
  • Do more with the news you do get. PR puts a lot of time and effort into pitching a story – and once they get it do you know what they do with it?  Oh, sure there are a few emails, or they drop it in Slack, but that’s it. PR is a game of momentum and that’s especially true in media relations. As I’m fond of saying, what you do with a mention in the media is every bit as important as getting it in the first place. See also 12 Things You Should do to Amplify a Media Mention Once You’ve Earned It.

What you do with a mention in the media is every bit as important as getting it in the first place.Click To Tweet

About the 2021 JOTW Strategic Comms Survey

Ned’s Job of the Week (JOTW) newsletter and Sword and the Script Media conducted the fourth annual JOTW Strategic Communications Survey to understand trends in the field of communications.

About 300 professionals took the survey: 97% of respondents are based in the U.S.; 88% report having 11 or more years of experience; 62% of respondents are in-house communicators;and respondents come from more than a dozen different industries.

Detailed demographics are included in the full report which is freely available on SlideShare and is embedded nearby.

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Need help with marketing or PR? We’re more than a proactive partner, we’re an extension of your marketing and PR team. Try our services.

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