How to build respect with journalists

There is a love-hate relationship between PROs and journalists. To feel more of the love and less of the hate, it helps to use today’s tools to improve media relationships. As Emily Belton, associate at PR firm Burson-Marsteller London, says: “The digital age has multiplied the opportunities we have to engage with journalists. Twitter, for instance, provides a broader insight into a journalist’s responsiveness to specific topics, and gives us another touch-point. Plus, it’s a great distribution channel for our own content. “

The problem with the digital revolution is that journalists have more to write, and less time to write it. Plus, talking online makes it harder for PROs to get to know their media contacts. Rassami Hok Ljungberg, head of agency rassami PR, asks: "When you put together that social media campaign or press list and send out your news and stories on the wire, do you know who you are talking to? You know, the human being and person that is actually going to – maybe – pick up the information you sent out and turn it into an article?” Ljungberg believes that PROs can get so fixated by all the “time-saving” digital communications available that they forget what PR is all about: human relationships and story-telling.

Hok Ljungberg emphasises the importance of getting personal: “What makes a difference as to whether your message, email or tweet gets read and noticed is whether or not the person on the other end knows you. Clients come and go, but journalists remain journalists albeit at different publications, hence it is key to know them, to understand them as a person behind the professional, and to cultivate an honest relationship with them.”

Getting to know your media contacts may involve breaking down any preconceptions they have about PROs, which are usually caused by those in the PR industry who still act without thinking, for example by spamming journalists and annoying them with phone calls that waste their time. Rebecca Annable, account director and partner at PR firm Lansons, says the key to building trust with a journalist, is to earn it: “If you want to be a PR consultant who is respected by journalists, you do need to be a thorough professional. Ultimately, PR and journalism are jobs, don’t undermine them by being fluffy."

As well as being professional, it is important to invest time in building relationships. Stephen Finch, senior director at PR firm Weber Shandwick, explains: “There’s no substitute for taking the time to get to know someone in person. That’s why great PROs still focus first and foremost on delivering relevant, timely, fact-filled content that shows an understanding of the writer’s publication and news agenda, as well as demonstrating a knowledge of their previous work and operating rhythm. Understanding like this is demonstrated in person, whether that’s a desk-side coffee, lunch, or a drink after work, and it’s surprising and refreshing just how many journalists are still keen to spend time with PROs.”

Another winning strategy for winning over journalists is to help them look good at work. Mark Knight, director at PR agency Broadgate Mainland, says: “Journalists are under increasing pressure from their editors to generate exclusive stories, gain access to senior executives and prepare copy which combines national and world events with a sector perspective. If you can combine all three you will be on to a winner.”

And an obvious no-no is to be unpleasant to journalists, which unbelievably, some PROs are. Knight explains: “I am always amazed to hear stories of PROs shouting down the phone at a journalist making an error or taking an angle which they object to. Not the best idea for rectifying the problem or creating a longer-term relationship they can benefit from.”

Tips for engaging journalists:

1. Get to the point! “I was given this advice by my father (a journalist who doesn’t believe in PR). Journalists don’t care what agency or brand you are from – they want top-line, hard-hitting news. If you can nail a phone call to the media in 26 seconds (I’ve timed it) this will gain you the utmost respect among people who work to very short deadlines.”  Rebecca Annable, Lansons
2. Meet. “I believe face-to-face meetings with journalists are integral to developing strong contacts. I regularly go on media meets, whether it’s to meet a new journalist to introduce myself, or to catch up with an existing contact and update them on upcoming client activity.“ Meg Robertson, Splendid Communications
3. Be informed. “Make sure the material you’re pitching is as relevant as possible. Ensure you’ve researched what they’re writing, and that you know your own topic inside-out.” Emily Belton, Burson-Marsteller London
4. Be relevant. “The days of long lunches with journalists may be over, but the basics of media relations remain: make sure your story is newsworthy and relevant to anyone you sell it in to.“ David Alexander, Calacus Public Relations
5. Praise. “Don’t be afraid to congratulate a journalist for their good work. Like all creatives they crave praise and are pleased that you have noticed their good work and taken the effort to say so.”  Mark Knight, Broadgate Mainland
6. Be a good friend. “After you’ve met once, the key to maintaining a good relationship is often empathy. Know their publication’s deadlines, whether they prefer calls to emails and what their editor is like. Keep in touch to comment on an article of theirs you enjoyed, whether or not it features your client.” Tom Davis, Aduro Communications
7. Invest time. “Media and PR rapport-building remains something which needs an investment of time and effort on both sides. Fleeting digital dialogue is simply a gateway to something for the long-term – and positive personal chemistry needs personal engagement.” Stephen Finch, Weber Shandwick
8. Nurture new talent. “When journalists start out on their career they need help and support to understand their beat. Take time to help them find their way, brief them on the industry allowing them to ask lots of basic questions and they will be eternally grateful.” Mark Knight, Broadgate Mainland
9. Use the right media. “ Researching a journalist’s preferred means of receiving information is also key and should be par for the course.” Sally McDonald, the CommsCo
10. Involve the journalist. “I often meet with my contacts or give them a quick call to bounce around ideas and work with them to create interesting and bespoke content that is tailored to their title and beneficial to our client. Involving the journalist in this process from the beginning guarantees coverage of a high quality, as it’s their baby as much as yours, so they will push to see it come to life.” Meg Robertson, Splendid Communications


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