We’re the public relations industry—and we’ve forgotten our purpose: to relate to the public.
Sounds reductionist, sure. But when a client is looking for more visibility, we’re supposed to, at least in part, tell our clients’ stories through the media. That’s not happening in most agencies, where true media relations can be an afterthought
, relegated behind often ambiguous processes that are more smoke and mirrors than smart and strategic.
Imagine you’re a brash young startup looking to make it clear that you’re gunning for your biggest competitors. Or a corporate behemoth whose CEO needs to share his genius with the masses. Or perhaps you’re a nonprofit communicating a mission to the world. You want to reach any number of stakeholders
and need a public relations firm that can do that. So how do you pick one?
We’re overrun by jargon
Take a stroll through the websites of any of the world’s largest PR agencies and you’ll inevitably read about their “innovative,” usually “proprietary” process. They offer a “360-degree view” of your industry’s landscape! They’re based on “advanced methodology!” They’re “data-driven!” It seems every firm is “redefining” public relations. Every firm is “disruptive.”
Go far enough down this rabbit hole, and you’ll eventually realize the mad rush to “redefine” public relations has led many good firms to lose sight of the actual definition of the job. The insistence on how big data and algorithms can work magic has overshadowed the simple idea of a strong message, a good story and the part art/part science of fostering relationships with journalists. Machines aren’t writing our news stories (or not most
of them, yet). Human beings are still the gatekeepers when it comes to reaching the public. We still trust to their judgment decisions about what’s truly interesting or newsworthy and what stories the public needs to hear.
Where’s the media research?
I’m not proposing that media relations is simple. True, any public relations practitioner can punch some keywords into a PR software program which spits out a list of contact info for all the journalists in the world who’ve ever covered a particular topic, whether “investment banking” or “competitive clowning” and mass email a bland blanket pitch to all those reporters, who, in turn will ignore them, delete them or put your email address on their spam list.
But the truth is there is no mathematical formula you can use to ensure that the reporters, editors and producers of the world will respond to your pitch. You’ve got to do proper research
, pick up the phone, talk to them and actually win them over, often over the course of years. That’s even true when you’re managing crises. Understanding the reporters you are trying to fend off or educate relies on strong relationships and research.
Nor am I proposing that other forms of communication are dispensable, whether social media, influencer activation, events or guerilla marketing. Of course, these tactics should—and do—play a vital role in communicating a message to the right audiences. But in the majority of cases, they should complement, not replace, a strong media relations program driven by results.
Recommitting to media engagement
I also understand why this once foundational approach to PR has seen a decline. It reflects a broader trend in how technology and data are changing social interaction and how we’re more comfortable with filtered communication and less comfortable calling anyone unfamiliar or unsolicited.
For many of those entering the field today, cold-calling a reporter to talk to them about covering your client can feel like sales—crass and impersonal. If done correctly, it is not. Journalists are people; people with deadlines and bosses. They appreciate genuine help that comes from a desire to make their lives easier.
Commit to this kind of engagement and before long your firm will have a stable of contacts who are actually looking forward to seeing your name in their inbox or on the caller ID. Some will call this approach transactional, but I think it shows how the core of public relations isn’t sales, it’s relationship-building. It’s based on the mutual respect that we have for the work our two industries do.
Am I saying there’s no role for data-based approaches in PR? Absolutely not. But this is a game where quantity does not always beat quality. A real relationship with a human being who feels like you want to help them, and who wants to help you in turn, is often what makes the difference in finding a platform for your client’s message.