As another year stumbles up to speed, let us tarry a moment to remember two groups of people close to our PR hearts who had it tough in 2023 - and are going to find it tougher in 2024: The first group is journalists, starved of resources and bent double by the demands of their paymasters; the second group is PRs selling-in stories to these desperate journos, and losing their minds as they try to get someone, anyone, to open an email or pick up a phone.
PRs and journalists need each other, but something has gone awry with their lines of communication.
Once, contacting journalists involved switchboards, faxes and pubs. In a busy newspaper office, faxes were binned - too many were adverts for cheap suits, and important ones would be followed up with a call anyway. Down the pub is where the action often took place; journo needed story, PR needed coverage, booze needed drinking. Of course, the digital age changed all of this. The number of journalists shrank, the ranks of PRs swelled.
Is this the end for email?
The age of email swept away the age of pubs and phones, helping PRs land journalists en masse without risking cirrhosis (and, often, without picking up a phone). But those pricey email databases so beloved of PRs are looking increasingly irrelevant.
Getting a journo to open an email, never mind reply, has never been more challenging. We recently ran training for a top-drawer PR agency and, like so many others, they said it had become incredibly difficult to even contact journalists, never mind sell-in a story.
It was such a common complaint that we asked some senior media contacts about this. A national assistant editor told us they had 308,000 unopened emails. A national head of news said 99% of emails go without a response, even if the story is okay. Another national news chief said simply: ‘It’s all changed.’
Too much to deal with
Tight paginations, tighter staffing and big stories that soak up reporting firepower mean even big outlets can’t follow up emails - despite the promise of a decent tale.
Websites, of course, absorb a lot more content than print - Mail Online pushes out 1,500 stories a day - but, then, you can be up against the entire planet when it comes to contacting online writers.
The constant changes facing media are designed to cut costs and raise output - the Mirror will soon be the next title wrestling with running a seven-day operation, whilst balancing the needs of digital and legacy platforms.
There is hope
But it’s not all bad news; not entirely.
One of our contacts said they still got stories out of the blue on email, another said email remained the most appreciated way of making contact - swamped inbox notwithstanding.
Some newsdesks are reinstalling a landline too, though, once word gets out, those numbers will be permanently engaged.
So what is a put-upon PR to do? Here are a few quotes to give you a hint:
“Take us out for a coffee, I’ve built great contacts that way.”
“There isn’t a silver bullet - but personal contacts are probably more important now than ever before.”
“Talking and meeting is much appreciated for better relationships, discussions and bouncing around ideas.”
After a lifetime in which pubs gave way to phones, which gave way to email, we’re back where we started, albeit in a Starbucks rather than the Red Lion.
Communication has become hard because it is now so easy; contacting a journalist has become challenging because there are so many potential routes. It’s a trust thing, a familiarity thing, a human thing. And, in a very modern world of communications, it’s a very old-fashioned thing.
I’ll drink to that, but just the one, mind.
Kenny Campbell is a co-founder of the Pepshop media agency, and was Editor of Metro for 13 years
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