How the Communication Barriers Between PR and Journalists Have Changed

By Colleen Martin, Principal

It was March 13th. Friday, the 13th, to be exact. We were working from home and our bosses told us to stay safe, and that they would see us back at the office in two weeks. Two weeks became four weeks, and so on and so on; we have not been back to working in the office since that day.

That was the day I realized the coronavirus pandemic was upon us – and just like that, our everyday activities and daily routines would rapidly change.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, in the United States alone, over 36,000 journalists lost their jobs, were furloughed, or had their pay cut, according to data from the New York Times. As advertising budgets were slashed by businesses affected by the pandemic, newsrooms such as Fortune, Quartz, the LA Times, and many more that relied heavily on advertising dollars were forced to make decisions that no one ever wants to make. Managers had to lay off or reduce their editorial staff — the vibrant, hard-working, and badly needed writers we all depend on to keep us informed about what’s happening in the world.

At the same time, the PR industry was no more immune to the financial impact of the pandemic. According to a PRWeek poll of the industry in May 2020, one in five agencies laid off staff and instigated furloughs; 77% of clients reduced PR retainers and 90% postponed PR campaigns.

No doubt about it, the past year has been hard. It has forced us to figure out new ways to do things — conferences became virtual events and business travel became Zoom meetings. For PR folks, it forced us to be creative in the way we contacted and communicated with journalists.

Journalists have long had a complicated relationship with PR professionals, and vice versa. Some might liken it to unrequited love (PR chasing the journalists). U.S. Census data shows that PR pros now outnumber journalists 6-to-1, as newsrooms shrink and demand for public relations grows. This means that reporters, especially ones at the most influential media outlets, are often bombarded with emails by PR folks, sending them story ideas on behalf of their clients. Before the pandemic, this was typically combined with (much hated) phone calls to their offices.

Many of the traditional ways of doing our jobs had to change once we closed our doors and started calling our homes our offices. Unless we are contacting a journalist where we already have an existing relationship, most of us don’t have each other’s personal cell phone numbers. With inboxes being flooded with hundreds of story pitches, we had to be smarter and more selective about the way we communicate potential good story ideas with reporters.

In some cases, Twitter DMs (direct messages) quickly became a smart and convenient way to send a quick, private message to a journalist to start a one-on-one conversation – a line or two about who you are and what you want to chat about, which could spur a desire to have a conversation offline to learn more. Those journalists know that by having their DMs open, that they are inviting this type of inbound communication, and it gives those of us in PR a sort of “green light” to send short, targeted and relevant messages to reporters. And those that do not want to be communicated with this way have a simple solution – to keep their DMs closed.

Many journalists when working on a deadline often send out a tweet with a quick question looking for a subject matter expert or other source that can quickly answer a question for a story they are working on. By following the appropriate writers on Twitter and keeping up to date with what they are talking about on social media, not only will you get to know their interests better, but you will also be able to tap into those opportunities that are all about seeing the right tweet at the right time, and getting them the right source exactly when they need it – a win for them, and a win for you and your client.

LinkedIn has been another channel that has been helpful to me and my colleagues to build trust and dialogue with journalists. There are over 260 million monthly active users on LinkedIn, and while you may need to pay for LinkedIn Premium to get InMail capabilities (where you can directly message another LinkedIn member that you’re not connected to), there are plenty of ways to leverage LinkedIn to connect with journalists without paying for this service. Once you know a writer’s email address, and you have connected with them by phone or email, you can request to add them to your network, and send a quick message with your connection request. There is no need for a long, drawn out email, and LinkedIn is not the place for your four-paragraph story pitch. LinkedIn is a great way to connect, engage with and follow what writers are talking about in their LinkedIn feed – and to serve as a dependable resource for them when the right time comes.

There is a time and a place for every communication method, and it’s super important to not be tone deaf when it comes to pitching the media. Use common sense, have empathy, consider journalists’ time and expertise, and consider the current weeks’ events before reaching out. Be a reliable source, and you’ll quickly become reporters’ go-to trusted PR person when it comes to getting what they need to tell a good story. The pandemic has taught us that whether you work as a PR professional or a journalist, that we are all just human beings doing our jobs.

As Bruce Lee said: “Knowledge will give you power, but character, respect!”