The changed PR-journalist equation

Peter Himler. Flatiron Communications LLC

Last week my former Associated Press client Tori Ekstrand invited me to speak at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a two–hour snow delay in New York, I finally found my way to the Freedom Forum Center on campus where Tori, now an assistant professor, and a handful of her undergraduate students gathered to hear my point-of-view on the evolution of the communications industries.

In a nutshell, I explained, we’ve entered an age when every company and every individual is a media outlet with the capacity to create and syndicate content. At the same time, nimble media upstarts with names like Buzzfeed, Politico, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, TMZ, Drudge, and a myriad others have mastered the art of headline histrionics. In so doing, they have siphoned off a growing share of the public’s ever-divided attention spans from legacy media, which today are struggling to retain the influence they once enjoyed.

I was surprised to learn from Tori that some 60 percent of the students in UNC’s journalism program are not majoring in journalism at all. Instead, they’re pursuing careers in advertising and public relations, which may be a smart move given the economic challenges the media industry continues to face, i.e., Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times, and the industry’s embrace of new hybrid ad/edit revenue-generating schemes such as “native advertising” and sponsored content.

Separately, I had forgotten that Talking Biz News’ founder Chris Roush was a senior associate dean and the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in Business Journalism at the university. Talking Biz News is a must-read for those working as or with business journalists. Chris invited me to pen a post for the site on “what’s wrong with the relationship between PR people and business journalists.”

Clearly there’s much wrong in this symbiotic relationship, but it doesn’t end with the business/financial news beat. The historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals has taken a distinct turn toward the latter in recent years and cuts across virtually every media beat.

There are a number of reasons feeding the growing acrimony between the two professions, or at least the short fuses journalists have today for PR operatives:

1. The ratio of PR people to “pitchable” journalists is now estimated at 4 to 1, resulting in email inbox overload.
2. New data-driven vendors let PR pros automate the media relations process, producing greater volumes of often misguided story pitches.
3. Journalists have many other sources for their story ideas, including those they follow in real-time on Twitter and Facebook.
4. Media relations is pushed to junior staffers at many big agencies — and in-house communications departments — with relatively little supervision or mentoring

With that said, I have to disagree with Chris’s premise that the relationship between PR people and business journalists is completely broken. The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Kafka, CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the FT and countless others – including local media outlets — frequently turn to PR professionals whom they’ve come to trust for delivering timely and accurate information.

The relative number of these trustworthy PR pros may have dwindled in recent years, but I assure readers of Talking Biz News that time and information-strapped business journalists continue to appreciate and value the responsive PR pro who “gets it.”

The discipline of “earned media,” as it has become know, is alive and well and still drives the fortunes of the vast majority of PR organizations. Call it what you want – media relations, publicity, media engagement, story pitching – the task of capturing the affections of beleaguered journalists thrives. As an art, however, media relations has seen better days. Here are some likely pleas from both sides of the media relations equation.

Journalists to the PR professional:

• Do not send a story pitch without first researching what I cover.
• In fact do not send a story pitch to a target list of reporters without knowing what each and every person on that list covers.
• Please refrain from sending me a manifesto. If you cannot articulate the story in a couple of sentences, then don’t bother sending.
• Keep the email subject line newsy, not cutesy.
• Take the time to learn and understand what you are pitching.
• Deliver on the promise, i.e., don’t offer an executive for an interview and then be unable to produce him or her.

PR professionals to journalists:

• In spite of the voluminous number of pitches landing in your inbox, please try to reply – even in the negative — if the pitch is within your coverage area. We just want closure.
• If the pitch is not in your specific coverage area, but still editorial valid, please forward to an appropriate colleague.
• Please know that if you do not respond to our overtures, we will be free to take the story idea elsewhere.
• Please know that we would be happy to serve as your arms and legs when you’re in a bind.
• Just as you have a job to do, so do we. Civility is preferred.

Of course, the savvy communications professional today is no longer solely reliant on (and suppliant to) editorial decision makers to have their stories or POVs shared. The PR profession now has the creative capacity and a range of publicly accessible media platforms to deliver content directly to the public, bypassing the media filter altogether.

Does the profession (and its clients) still covet a business feature in The FT or on the Bloomberg News wire? You bet.

But as public consumption of news and information migrates to mobile and social, the PR pros no longer have to endure the indignity of getting dissed by a stressed out reporter who paints all PR people as evil. Alternative means for engaging end audiences via independently produced content are on the rise.

Peter Himler is a principal at New York-based Flatiron Communications.