How can PR professionals improve their relationships with journalists?

About the author

Jasmin Shearan prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Bing Image Creator
Bing Image Creator
Jasmin Shearan
Jasmin Shearan

Journalists and PR professionals have always had a complicated love/hate relationship.

PR professionals have close connections with clients that allow them to consistently generate new stories. By using these stories, journalists raise the profile of PR professionals’ clients while simultaneously filling their own quotas and meeting editorial deadlines. It’s a mutually beneficial system.

Academics John Lloyd and Laura Toogood explain in their book ‘Journalism and PR’, published in 2014, that a cornerstone role of a PR professional is “the reporter’s friend”, encompassing how PR professionals have always helped hard-pressed journalists by providing readily available content.

However, while the relationship between PR professionals and journalists is incredibly closely linked, it can soon breakdown. In a bid to maximise pitches and get as much coverage as possible, PR professionals can leave journalists wanting by sending impersonal messages, outdated press releases and irrelevant content. Pair that with the increasingly difficult environment journalists are working in — influenced by the rise of online media, breakdown of public trust and lack of resources — and the relationship between PR professionals and journalists begins to breakdown.

In such a challenging media climate for journalists, it’s more important than ever for PR professionals to strengthen their role as ‘the reporter’s friend’ — and understanding journalists’ difficulties and what they truly want from PR professionals is key to that.

It’s more important than ever for PR professionals to strengthen their role as ‘the reporter’s friend’

Here I analyse external research into journalism and the changing media landscape, as well as insights I have gathered from journalists I have an established connection with, to uncover what PR professionals must do to improve their relationship with journalists.

Treat journalists like clients

It can be easy in a PR role to slip into a client-only mindset, purely focusing time and resources on promoting the client’s story as much as possible. But what PR professionals need to remember is that journalists are important stakeholders too and therefore should be treated in a similar way to clients. The first step in getting a new client company is researching the business. What sector are they in and who are their stakeholders? What have they published recently and what current news stories are relevant to them? If PR professionals took this same thoughtful approach before interacting with a journalist, communication would be a lot more successful.

Cision’s State of the Media 2022 report revealed that more than 2 in 3 journalists find most pitches they receive irrelevant — which suggests that many PR professionals aren’t doing enough research. This is a lose-lose situation, as PR professionals who send ill-targeted pitches won’t get coverage and will flood journalists with unsuitable content. Too often PR agencies boast about the number of journalists they can distribute a press release to. This may dazzle some prospective clients, but a long ill-targeted list won’t get good results. These points were confirmed by an editor of 20 years in the design engineering sector I interviewed. The editor had negative experiences with “PR professionals sending information that isn’t relevant,” and explained “some PR companies…will bombard an editor with information, expecting us to use everything, which we simply cannot do.”

Understand journalists’ challenges

PR professionals should focus their efforts on making a journalist’s life easier and that requires understanding what they want and the challenges they are facing. Trust in the media is falling, and journalists are under increasing pressure to publish stories that will attract readers. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, just 42% of respondents in a global survey said they trust most news most of the time. In fact, trust in the news had fallen in nearly half of the countries surveyed. Declining trust in media is such a major issue that almost a third of journalists voted maintaining credibility as a trusted news source and combatting accusations of fake news as their biggest challenge.

As well as broken trust, the digital age has presented numerous challenges to journalism. The media has changed drastically since the 1950s, when sales from newspapers began to gradually decline. News has become faster and how readers digest stories has changed. In fact, in Ofcom’s 2022 News Consumption in the UK report, the internet (including social media and podcasts) was the only platform for news that had seen increased use over the previous 4 years. Similar trends exist in other countries, such as Germany and the US.

The rise of social media has significantly changed the media landscape. News used to lie solely in the hands of journalists who worked hard to slowly build authority and a credible reputation. Now, social media allows anyone to become an influencer with thousands of trusted followers in a matter of months. To quote Dan Wallace-Brewster, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Scalefast, in his Forbes article: “Today, both journalists and social media mavens find themselves swimming in the same pond.” In addition to influencers, the digital age has evoked a rise in ‘citizen journalism’ — journalism conducted by public citizens who aren’t professional journalists. Academic Stuart Allen highlights this in his book ‘News Culture’, published in 2010, where he explores how ordinary people get “compelled to adopt the role of a reporter”, often in times of crisis.

Although both use of online outlets and social media for news consumption is rising, there is also an epidemic of people who avoid the news altogether. The number of consumers who avoid news often or sometimes has doubled in the UK and Brazil over the past five years and risen in many other countries such as the US, Australia and Germany. Now journalists must work even harder to publish content that will re-engage audiences they’ve lost, as well as attract new audiences.

These factors together have caused newsrooms to become cash-strapped with declining resources and reduced staff. Award-winning journalist Nick Davies highlighted in his book ‘Flat Earth News’, published in 2011, that journalism has changed dramatically since he first entered the industry. Davies theorised that journalists now work “without the time to check, without the chance to go out and make contacts and find leads.” Instead, journalists are relying heavily on PR professionals to provide content, leading to the rise of “churnalism” — a type of journalism that is based on reuse of material from other sources, rather than original research.

The practice of churnalism has negative connotations across many media professionals and readers, who believe the reuse of material creates biased, untrustworthy and unoriginal content. While in some cases this may be true, it’s undeniable that journalists today are pressed for time and resources and therefore need content from external sources to fill quotas. If PR professionals build relationships with journalists so that they can work in an informed, collaborative way, it’s possible that PR content can be used in a helpful and credible manner.

Share trustworthy content

A journalist’s most fundamental job is to bring the truth to the public — meaning they don’t want an article full of smoke and mirrors. In an interview, Alastair Houghton, editor of BusinessLive, said common misleading mistakes he sees from PR professionals are putting “‘BREAKING NEWS’ on something that has been known for months” and “reporting a firm’s financial success…without including the actual numbers.”

A journalist has spent years building a credible reputation, and they don’t want that diminished by publishing a misleading story. Alarmingly, just 36 per cent of journalists find agency PR professionals credible, versus 50% for company PR professionals. If PR professionals want journalists to publish their stories, they must give them the truth in plain sight. For a journalist I interviewed in the Med-Tech sector, the most trustworthy pieces they receive from PR professionals are “well-referenced” and have “quotes from experts”.

79% of journalists say they are at least somewhat more likely to cover a story if offered an exclusive

As well as the way content from PR professionals is written, it’s important to consider the format it’s in and how it’s sent. Press releases are journalists’ most wanted type of content and 79% of journalists say they are at least somewhat more likely to cover a story if offered an exclusive. “There are some PR professionals whom I know send an article out to multiple journalists and I prefer exclusive ones,” said the journalist I interviewed in the electronics sector.

Send pitches early, via email

Moving on to how journalists want PR professionals to contact them with stories, the majority prefer email. In fact, 85% of journalists do not prefer to be pitched to over the phone. I remember at my first PR agency; we were actually given targets for how many journalists we needed to call each week. Unsurprisingly, most journalists I called requested I emailed them instead. Unexpected phone calls can interrupt concentration on a task, whereas emails can be read and replied to at a journalist’s convenience.

However, journalists haven’t always preferred to receive pitches via email. In The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit by Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley, published in 2017, Theaker explains the results of a survey she sent out to UK regional and national journalists in 1999: “Nearly half (48 per cent) [of journalists] preferred to receive information by mail, as opposed to 15 per cent who preferred email.” She also reflected on how at the beginning of her career in 1980, it was standard practice to type up, photocopy and mail press releases to journalists. This is a far cry from the digital era PR professionals and journalists operate in now — highlighting just how much the media landscape has changed over the past few decades.

While social media is rising in popularity and many journalists plan on spending more time on social networks, just 5% of journalists rank social media as either important or very important for receiving PR pitches. However, they do use social media to publish and share their content, which provides a great opportunity for PR professionals to connect with journalists and share a genuine interest in what they’re doing. By supporting journalists’ content, PR professionals can ensure that the relationship is mutually beneficial. This approach of getting to know journalists was praised by a journalist I interviewed in the Med-Tech sector: “The easiest relationships I have with PR people are those that I’ve developed a personal relationship with…and [we’ve] come to the best way to work together.”

It’s also important for PR professionals to carefully consider when to send journalists content. The results of a survey found that the majority of journalists want to receive pitches early in the work week, between 5am and 12pm. Pitches must be sent far enough in advance if they are intended for a specific feature or date of importance. “I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been given information the day before, or on the day of, coverage of certain days or events. It’s really hard to make anything newsworthy out of the most time sensitive stuff,” explained the journalist I interviewed in the Med-Tech sector. This was agreed with by the design engineering editor I interviewed: “[If PR professionals] want to provide a feature for a specific section of the printed issue, then sending over a synopsis for it in plenty of time is essential.”

Prioritise building relationships

The media landscape is changing, and journalists today must navigate a minefield of broken audience trust, rising social media popularity and a lack of resources. PR professionals rely on journalists to cover their clients, and therefore have a responsibility to adopt the role of ‘the reporter’s friend’. This can be achieved if PR professionals take the time to understand the challenges journalists are facing and how they want to be worked with.

PR professionals must question their established ways of communicating and working with journalists and collaborate with management to change them if necessary. To move forward, PR professionals need to retire transactional communicative approaches with journalists and instead integrate building relationships into PR processes.