There are many misconceptions that individuals have about public relations, especially those who have never hired a PR consultant or agency before. But the one I'd say tops the list is the notion that successful PR pros are limited to those who have personal relationships with influential journalists.
Ever since the PR industry stood by while this reputation of PR pros as being little more than people who “smile and dial” took hold, there's been a notion that if you aren't friends with someone, they won't take your call and won't run your story. PR pros themselves have in many ways tried to capitalize on this myth by saying they're the only ones who can make leading journalists pick up their phones.
Interestingly, neither the client nor the agency/consultant usually sees the big problem with this approach. Simply put, how well do they think that approach is going to work when the editor or reporter with whom they may have a rapport leaves or gets downsized -- situations that are happening every day in the current environment?
For the PR pro or agency, a similar question would be what are you going to do when the industry in which you've been specializing all the sudden hits a rough patch and you can no longer rely on a handful of journalist relationships? Obviously, any PR pro who has built his or her reputation on this kind of strategy is going to have a tough time convincing current or prospective clients that he or she will be able to do the job once tough times it if all they've banked on is a relationship strategy.
Instead of positioning PR strategy and execution-like sales, think of it like a typical professional service and realize that the real value comes from strategic counsel as much as execution. Just as a lawyer can't control which judge will preside over a hearing or trial, no PR pro can control who the reporter is that covers a given beat at a target publication. However, just like lawyers make planning, research, and preparation a key part of their strategy, so can PR pros.
Whether you're handling a pitch or client that's in an industry in which you have extensive experience or you're taking on a client in an industry that's relatively new to you, the elements of success are the same. Put the emphasis on research so that you can properly identify appropriate outlets and targets and spend the time to create a newsworthy pitch that incorporates an angle that will have an impact on the readers of your target publication. Once these two initial steps are done, the final step is making sure you get your message into the hands of the right reporter and editor.
When it comes to picking the appropriate contact, I prefer a mix of tools and time. By that I mean while I do use media databases, I also spend a lot of time researching the content that's appeared in a particular target. This helps you both prepare a pitch that they'll likely appreciate and ensure that you're targeting an appropriate journalist. Once you succeed on both fronts, the chances your pitch will get picked up increase exponentially.
I say all this from personal experience. Over the course of the recession, like most small PR pros, while I've maintained my industry concentrations, I've also had to pitch business in industries that were relatively new to me. However, through research and a methodical approach, I was able to find success in these areas and came to add them to my mix of service offerings. While branching out may not make for the most comfortable experience, in all likelihood it will be a necessity at one time or another. Given that, the earlier you prepare, the better.