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Have or Execute a PR Program? Expert Insights for Navigating the Tough Media Landscape in 2020

By: Kristin Parran Faulder and Elizabeth Yekhtikian

A conversation with expert media analyst Sam Whitmore If you are thinking about implementing a media/public relations program, already have one underway, or are someone who executes those programs, this is for you. We have collectively been working in and/or with the media (we are both former reporters) for nearly 40 years, and have seen dramatic shifts in the landscape over that time. While there are obviously the big transformations – from print to digital, traditional to social – the change that has taken place over the past few years has brought the biggest challenges we’ve experienced as media practitioners. The bottom line: It is more difficult than ever to get media coverage for your company (and its executives, its products/services, etc.). Never satisfied to come across a problem and not try to understand it, we set out to talk to people on the front lines so we could get a better handle on what’s going on and most importantly, what to do about it. The first of those conversations was with Sam Whitmore, tech media analyst and founder/editor of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey. This post is the first in a two-part series. Below you will find a truncated wrap-up of our discussion with Sam. The next post will have recommendations based on his insights. What are you seeing for 2020? What are your feelings on how media’s appetite has changed? SW: Generally, it is a more difficult environment, but there will be pockets of opportunity. It boils down to the patience and imagination of the clients that agency PR people are representing. I’m still amazed when I see old-school demands – the thinking of media relations as “transactional.” Reporters and editors are worried about the future of their industry. The best thing PR people can do (on behalf of their clients) is to bring them strategic things they might be interested in, things that will help them reach and connect with more readers, such as URLs to freshly published academic research in their field, or the latest under-the-radar Substack newsletter germane to their beat. How can we make sense of the frenetic media world we’re living in (it feels that way even outside of Washington)? SW: First of all, there’s a mismatch in general that people run into with Tier 1. In the era of post-truth, the existence of an “a la carte” story about a given company at a given time isn’t contextual enough for most reporters today. Most require context, the macro-societal impact. Consider the New York Times. Now picture a Venn diagram with “business,” “technology,” and “society” – that’s a loose formula for a Times reporter. When vendors come in with a low-context pitch, it’s likely to be turned down (or ignored altogether) because they want to know what the impact on society will be. Think about companies like Uber and Lyft, and the impact they are having on cloud kitchens and the likely decline in people eating in restaurants. Companies and executives often obsess about Tier 1, to the detriment of their business goals. There have been so many media apples that have fallen from the tree, so to speak, that are taking root elsewhere. If those companies and executives would work with their PR team (whether that’s in-house or at an agency) to create a map with multiple paths on it with realistic goals – and have the courage to let their team pitch the business in a realistic, interesting and relevant way – they would likely be pleasantly surprised by the business results. How should our thinking evolve around pitching companies and company stories in 2020? SW: This is going to be a big area of change. First, the prestige of the CEO/company has been diminishing because so much money is pouring in and distorting the picture. Rather than seeing the CEO being interviewed, we’re seeing the VC firm being interviewed – everything is getting pushed upstream. It can seem so downstream to profile the CEO of a start-up in this environment. For many reporters covering start-ups, especially in that coveted Tier 1, they’re looking at the bigger picture: What’s the total available market? One way to get around the noise and start-up stuff is to look at the pedigree of the management team, Board of Directors and investors. What is their track record? Have they had wins before? What did they get right? A senior person at VentureBeat, TechCruch or the Wall Street Journal, for example, will be looking for those criteria. Unfortunately, pitches often do not address that information because the company/executives dictate the verbiage. We’ve noticed a dramatic difference in response, or lack of response, from reporters today. How can we break through? SW: First, one reason it’s different is that most newsrooms today are not physically consolidated like they used to be. It’s a disparate environment where people are using collaboration tools like Slack to communicate. Email is playing second fiddle. Time poverty is created, so reporters end up just looking at subject lines; they are more finicky about what they will open. So, how to solve the problem. PR people need to shift their thinking from the purveyor of a specific story to a filler of the pipeline. It requires an understanding of the way reporters think about their workflow. No professional class thinks about FOMO more than reporters. They don’t have time to build their sources like before, giving PR professionals the opportunity to look at the company’s portfolio and identify the “highest IQ amongst the ranks” to offer key targets writing about their space. In the 2020s, it will be less about “I have something good for you to write” and more about augmenting value in the mind of the reporter. Can you give them an invitation – to someone, something, somewhere – they might not normally have gotten? From a tactical perspective, how do we put into practice all the insights you just shared? SW: As always, but even more critical now, subject lines are critical, just like headlines. If you’re pitching Forbes, be mindful of Forbes’s position in the marketplace. What differentiates it? Does your proposed story sharpen that differentiation? Would the Forbes sales staff say, ‘This is a story that reflects what we’re all about’? In the 2020s, care must be taken to tailor pitches with these things in mind. Look at everything one of your targets has written. If there’s one that catches your eye, reach out and ask them what the next version is… the sequel to the story. You might just be able to help define what that angle is. A huge thank you to Sam Whitmore for his time, expertise and invaluable insights. Stay tuned for Part II, where we will outline an action plan based on these insights.

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