7 Ways to Build Better Relationships With Journalists
Penn uses “slow PR” interchangeably with the term “inbound PR” to highlight the similarities between slow PR and inbound marketing. Slow PR is a relationship-based approach to communications.
In this piece I want to describe seven best practices for building better relationships with journalists, specifically using a Slow PR model. Put more simply: how can PR practitioners build better relationships with journalists without a pitch?
1. Become a reader/distributor of their work
Read almost any journalist’s advice to PR practitioners and context is likely to come up:
“Read the writer’s prior articles. Thoroughly.” – Cheryl Conner, Forbes
“If it’s something that’s generally not my beat, I’m just not going to respond,” – Melanie Eversley, USA Today
“It still happens too often that I receive info from PR agencies that is completely useless for me.” – Michel van der Ven, Freelancer
“Read a journalist’s work. This is PR 101.” – Abbi Whitaker, Abbi Public Relations
Harvard Business Review reports that major news outlets generally get three times the average amount of email in pitches alone. There is a lot of noise, and most of it is irrelevant to the topics that each journalist covers.
One of the easiest things to do is to become a fan of relevant journalists first. Also note that print journalists also tend to have digital responsibilities, have personal blogs, and may write short or long form on social networks (examples of long-form being Google+ or LinkedIn). Reading a journalist’s work likely requires finding multiple sources.
Once you find these sources you can subscribe to them via RSS feed, newsletter, or get alerts by other means. And of course, you can also show your support for the writer’s content by sharing it (as appropriate) through your social distribution channels and by email.
2. Be respectful of journalist’s time
“be cognizant of the journalist’s job…. Journalists are busy, so get to the point. Don’t waste their time harassing them with long pitches or begging them to establish these great relationships where you braid each other’s hair and gab about American Idol. Chances are they’re chasing another deadline and don’t have the time. At most, you might be able to snag a coffee with them sometime, but don’t set high expectations.”
This is an important perspective about Slow PR: without anything relevant to pitch, a PR practitioner is not explicitly useful to a journalist. Similar to a first date, PR practitioners need to be cognizant of a journalist’s time and of their preferences.
Mark Horstman of the popular Manager Tools podcast says that he balances regular communication with his contacts with respect for their time by avoiding questions requiring response and by explicitly making responses optional. This may be an effective technique to build rapport with journalists as well.
3. Interact on social media
The level of accessibility that social media offers is unprecedented. The fact that Twitter and other social media platforms are used so widely by journalists is important for the PR profession. In the context of Slow PR, social offers a means to stay up-to-date on journalist interests and to share low-key social interactions.
Morgan Norris of Trew Marketing says that the ideal tone for social media interactions is casual:
“Keep your social media engagements with the press informal and genuine, regardless of the topic, if you want to build strong relationships with the press that go beyond just your professional expertise.”
Bloggers are oftentimes responsive to blog comments as well, which is another way to interact while being respectful of time and context. Sally Falkow of meritus media says that a frequent insight from journalists is that they would like PR practitioners to interact with them on social first before moving on to other platforms.
4. Interact face-to-face (if possible)
Heather Baker of TopLine Communications says that email isn’t the ideal platform to perpetuate a relationship with journalists:
“Journalists are people, and many of them have average or above average social skills. This means they tend not to form lasting bonds via email.”
Although many PR practitioners are understandably sensitive about journalist’s schedules, some of the most important relationships grow through face-to-face interaction. It may be coffee, drinks or dinner, or attending the same industry events. Robert Sax of Sax PR says that events are a good way to meet journalists face-to-face, and that patience is key:
“Go to events, trade shows, etc. where you might be able to meet the journalists in person…. Remember that you are starting a relationship and that takes time.”
Whatever the opportunity, face-to-face offers a depth and context that email and social media lack…. if you can pull it off.
5. Stay Positive
Dan Siegel of Spokepoint offers a very straightforward but crucial part of building rapport with journalists: be positive. He says that the benefit to being positive is that it increases the likelihood of your relationship to continue:
“It can be frustrating when reporters write negative stories about your clients, particularly if they are inaccurate. But getting angry or retaliating will only compound the damage.”
In their book, Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter Stearns discuss that when personality tests were first used for work candidates in the 1920s, their primary purpose was to determine whether a job candidate would respond to adversity with anger.
For the good part of 100 years, positivity has been a desirable professional trait. It should be an important aspect of your relationship with journalists as well.
6. Use technological tools, but not exclusively
You’re a PR practitioner reading the Cision blog, so I’m guessing you understand the value of the Cision database and the benefits of their social CRM product. Of course there are plenty of similar tools meant to make your profession easier. You (hopefully) won’t be surprised to know that technology is fallible, though.
Journalist beats can change or be miscategorized, or their niches can be narrower than their categories. It’s important to use technology to inform your communications, but not as the sole source.
Another caution that many journalists share is to contact them on the proper platform. For example, Facebook is rarely seen as an appropriate social network to contact journalists but Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ may be. A personal email address is rarely an acceptable means to contact a journalist, but a professional email address is (for the most part) appropriate.
7. Make your resources known and available
One of the most popular responses to the question of how to build relationships with journalists is to help them do their job better. This doesn’t mean pushing an irrelevant pitch with the pretense of “help.”
As a PR practitioner you have resources at your disposal. The resources of your client / employer, your network, yourself. When building relationships, you can offer your resources and connections to journalists. Make an introduction on LinkedIn, offer a subject-matter expert for a topical interview. The difference being that you are reacting to the needs of a journalist rather than pitching a specific PR story.
The key to this is intent: trying to fit an incongruent point of view into a journalist’s story isn’t useful. If you want a relationship, you have to follow the advice of Jeffrey Gitomer and “give first.”
Slow PR offers a challenging premise and a high reward. The biggest challenge is to build relationships with journalists is to offer as much (if not more) value to a journalist than you want in return. This requires a level of awareness, empathy, proactivity, and pleasantness – the same qualities necessary to build relationships with anyone (agnostic of profession).
To close, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post offered an insight about journalist outreach on Quora which is pretty consistent with the Slow PR concept and relationship building:
“Another option, and this is sneakier… is to bury the lede… Begin by e-mailing them some useful comments on stories they’ve written, or stories they might like to write. If your comments are good, you’ll get an e-mail back. With a relationship established, and some credibility built up, you can make your pitch and know that it’ll be heard.”
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