PRs, you’re failing to adapt to the digital news cycle

The pressures facing journalists should be the perfect opportunity for PRs to place more stories, argues Anthony Caruana. Instead, 'spray and pray' press releases reign, follow-up phone calls abound, and spokespeople remain ill-prepared to give journalists compelling interviews.

Over the past 15 years, since I started working as a journalist, the media landscape has undergone a revolution. Daily, weekly and monthly publishing cycles have been largely replaced by a thirst for content that means a new story needs to be ready every 30 minutes. Ad revenues have been squeezed and the many people researching and writing the content have been made redundant.

That should be a boon for PR agencies. After all, if journos are under the pump to deliver more content (and perhaps even help out the ad sales guys with some coverage of specific companies), then surely the opportunities for PR to successfully garner coverage for clients must be falling like pennies from heaven. Yet, the reality is far from it.

What I see is a broken system. Given the way today’s media operates, I would have expected the PR industry to have adapted. Recent LinkedIn data suggests there are now 10 times as many people identifying as working in PR as there are journalists. Despite all those resources, most of the PR interactions I have are the same as they were at the turn of the century.

‘Spray and pray’ press releases remain popular although they’re now accompanied with a “Did you see the email I sent this morning?” phone call a couple of hours later. Perhaps that’s where that headcount – about 4,000 new PR jobs per year in Australia over the last five years according to that LinkedIn data – is going.

Pitches still come to me for a magazine I used to edit – seven years ago. Surely PR agencies, with those resources and this lovely invention called the internet could check that their contact details are current. Yet, when I ask why their data is so behind, it’s usually because someone hasn’t updated a spreadsheet. Usually, these are agencies representing high-tech companies, yet they don’t use the tools they’re meant to be promoting.

The problem is that PR starts with the businesses agencies are representing. Which sounds great in theory, but businesses don’t tell stories – people do. The traditional relationship between PR and the client is usually through the marketing or sales side of the business. If the press release or pitch succeeds, the spokesperson, if they’re lucky, gets a profile of the journo they’re talking to and a few talking points.

And this is probably why spokespeople often fall at the first hurdle in interviews when I ask “What makes you special?” So many are unprepared for basic questions about their business’ value proposition, why customers should use them, and why they work there.

I understand the importance of getting the messaging right, but the right messaging doesn’t happen in a vacuum without the spokespeople.

Great PR happens when great storytellers are prepared and given an opportunity to share those stories. Use your spokespeople to create stories around your messaging.

Every time I media train someone, I’m amazed at the number of great stories that the PR and marketing teams aren’t aware of, because they haven’t taken the time to sit down, practice mock interviews and listen to the gems that come out. Those stories are far more compelling than the typical branding and positioning stuff they’re usually asked to do.

Businesses are accountable too. If they’re making an investment to retain a PR agency, they should also invest in training and coaching their spokespeople.

So often, I’ve done interviews that a PR has set up, only to end the interview and think “What a waste of time, I can’t get a story out of that”. Or worse, I get a story, but as soon as it’s published, the PR is in a panic on the phone, trying to get me to change it because the spokesperson wasn’t meant to tell me about something in the first place.

Journalists are storytellers trying to engage readers. PRs can learn a lot from them, and prepare and train their clients accordingly.

Anthony Caruana is a freelance journalist and CEO of Media-Wize


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