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Media relations: How COVID-19 has changed journalism

It was a tough time for publications before the pandemic, but now journalists and publications are having to do even more with even less. Editorial teams are smaller, and many of the journalists who are still working are in different locations and are operating at strange hours of the day. As Beth Hibbert, senior digital PR manager at agency Flaunt Digital, says: “Media relations is constantly changing, and PROs are used to working and adapting quickly to industry changes. However, I don’t think anybody could say they were prepared for the events of this year. There was a complete change in the news agenda; campaigns had to be put on hold as they were no longer relevant, both journalists and PROs were put on furlough (meaning fewer opportunities to pitch in stories) and planning for future activity became difficult too.

We ask PR experts how they are changing their approach to media relations and achieving coverage in the new media landscape.

Good news is good news
Beth Hibbert explains: “At the start of lockdown journalists were keen to share positive news from brands in an attempt to break up negative stories that were saturating the media. This made pushing out brand and product PR much easier. We’re now starting to see a return to normal business. Journalists and PROs are coming back off furlough and we’re seeing positive results for our campaigns and the amount of pick up they are getting again in the news. As a digital agency, we’ve seen publications place emphasis on the production of online content which has been great for us.”

Monisha Gohil, senior PR account executive at digital agency Datadial, says: “Our scope of work is changing and there have been some positive outcomes too. We have recently taken on clients which have benefited from the pandemic such as vitamins, tuition and coffee clients. As we moved past the peak, more journalists were seeking stories which provided light relief and entertainment.”

Sian Gaskell, MD and founder of PR firm CubanEight adds: “Good news is still cutting it as a sign of positivity. We have worked on a number of UK market launches as well as pushing out news of tech innovations that are fit for purpose right now.”

Expert advice is popular
Gaskell explains: “What is working well is content that provides value and insight. Many media outlets still want expert voices and comment from business leaders that share advice and best practice. And the same goes for data – one of our clients has been sharing their ecommerce data and trends weekly during these past months and has really helped to build its brand familiarity.”

Manage client expectations
Gaskell says: “Different titles have folded, but at the same time others are being reinvented to meet the needs of this changed world that we are now living in. And others are holding on in there, but changing how they accept content – some in badly hit sectors like retail have started to charge for inclusion.

“What has been important as an agency is the transparency around these changes with our clients and managing their expectations around delivery of results and how that has been impacted.”

News, news and more news
Connor Mitchell, senior consultant at PR agency Tyto, says: “The demand for highly relevant announcements seems to be through the roof right now. Any organisation that's doing well and striking deals in this environment is hot property in the news agenda. In fact, it’s not been uncommon in recent months for a story to catch fire if it’s relevant, timely and genuinely distinctive.”

Tailor content
Mitchell adds: “However, as ever, this is a double-edged sword. Of course this has always been true, but recent months have hammered home the importance of not wasting a journalist's time. Naturally, this is a standard that every PRO should strive for anyway, though it feels like pitches need to be even more tailored and specific than ever before. In a significantly depleted media landscape, with access to journalists over the phone being about as limited as it can be, top quality email pitching has taken on an entirely new degree of value.”

Be empathetic
Mitchell explains: “On the whole, it's been unbelievably difficult for everyone that's worked throughout this turbulent period. Some of our closest journalist contacts have been furloughed and it's been very tough to hear about the difficulties that print media and smaller trade publications in particular have had operating in this landscape. The pressures that have also been placed on those who continued to work, in order to cover more ground with the same copy expectations have been immense too. Being empathetic to those demands is therefore essential.”

Nurture existing relationships
Victoria Gill, account manager at comms agency Smoking Gun, says: “One of the biggest things I learnt during lockdown was to nurture existing relationships with the media. Don’t let anything fall through the cracks, check in regularly with contacts in your little black book, as it makes life easier for them and for you. Always make yourself useful, value their time and understand their pressures – it pays off in dividends.

Paul Campbell, associate director at agency Babel PR, adds: “The shrinking number of journalists has made the personal relationships we’ve built even more important. A smaller pool of journalists means an even larger number of pitches for each of them and so being able to make a call (and have it answered!) to discuss a story is vital now. You’ll hear plenty of PROs tell you that journalists never answer the phone, but that simply isn’t true if you’ve taken the time to build a meaningful relationship without wasting their time. It’s those relationships that will deliver results for your clients.”

Go the extra mile
Campbell explains: “You have to factor in more journalists working from home and so you may not have their number. There’s a lot to be said for searching back through prior email engagements to see if they’ve provided a mobile number, but if not, check to see if they regularly engage with PROs through social channels. If you’re left with email, remember that yours is going to be one of hundreds. Make it short, to the point and relevant.

“Remember also that journalists are all going to be time poor. They’ll be more receptive to an approach that gives them an easy route to a published piece. That might be a by-line for instance but if it’s a news or feature piece you’re chasing, make it easy for them. Give them the full package – a great pitch, available spokespeople, visual assets, third party commentary/data – whatever it takes to put the story together with minimum effort.

“With journalists under increasing pressure to churn out more articles, you have to ensure you are going above and beyond to adapt to what they need.”

Perseverance pays
Mark McMeekin, digital PR consultant at marketing agency AGY47, says: “With niche publications there is still the countless number of auto-replies stating ‘Furlough Leave’, and it is does mean that a change in approach is needed. Understanding the news cycle is always important, but now it is obviously just as important to understand who is still writing. It is obviously a worrying time for everyone and nobody truly knows the lasting affect the pandemic will have, particularly when the furlough scheme finishes.

“More than ever, good research is needed when building media lists and perseverance is going to be key for everyone when trying to speak to the right people."

James Hall, media office at home warranty provider NHBC, adds: “The hardest part has been actually making contact with journalists, bloggers and wider media. Funnily enough, coverage hasn’t been a problem – NHBC’s Pride in the Job campaign received record exposure in regional and trade media, but trying to ‘sell-in’ new campaigns has been the issue. Phone calls get diverted as offices are shut, limited joy with mobiles, lots of out of offices, ‘I have been placed on furlough’ (like myself in April), ‘I am now on annual leave for two weeks’ – it’s been a struggle just to make contact with people in the first instance. So on one hand whilst outlets are grateful for ready-made news it’s the initial call or follow-up that’s been the main problem. We’ve conducted several successful interviews between staff and the media via Zoom so we’ve found a way around it in some instances. It’s probably too early to say how all of this will pan out, but despite some challenges, we have made it work as best as we could.”

Give journalist what they want
Natalie Trice, PR coach and university lecturer: “Honesty is always the best policy and in 2020 that is so true.

“Now, more than ever, we need to be on top of the news agenda, ahead of the game and responsive to what journalists are looking for. I always try to be the 'go to' with my contacts and check in with them on a regular basis to see what they are working on, how I can help and just to see how things are going – remember they are human too and dealing with a lot behind the scenes, so bear that in mind before shooting off an email to ask why that feature hasn't gone out yet.”

Stop talking about Covid!
Adnan Bashir, senior manager for corporate communications at software firm Hansen Technologies, says: “I’ve found that to a certain extent, the attention of the media has pivoted back to their respective core areas of focus before the onset of the pandemic and the resulting ‘new normal’. Dealing with journalists and analysts across multiple territories around the world, I’ve seen first-hand that Covid-19 no longer commands the undivided attention across the board, as was the case as recently as a couple of months ago. Staples such as annual company financial results and key executive appointments still enjoy a measurable degree of attention.”

Be patient and tactful
Bashir says: “What is extremely important to keep in mind is that tact goes a long way. Remember that this is still a period of adversity and Covid-19 will always lurk in the background. Stories that you may have successfully pitched may end up getting temporarily sidelined as a result of an unexpected development in the news cycle, through no fault of the journalist in question. I’ve seen quite a few PR professionals have lapses in judgement when this happens. Avoid being pushy and overbearing. Just because you secured coverage for a similar story in the past, doesn’t mean you’re automatically assured of it now.”

Getting good coverage has never been easy, but in these times (note the word ‘unprecedented’ has been avoided!) it is trickier than ever. Perseverance, hard work and patience are needed like never before.

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