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 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.