The Reason Media Relations is Not Transactional, It’s a Process

For people who haven’t managed public relations programs much, one of the more common points of confusion is over how much control we have in the media relations process, and ultimately how some stories get into the news and some do not. It’s the age-old issue of newsworthiness.

In my experience, the root of the confusion often traces back to the notion that PR is a transactional process. We have an important story. We feel that it’s so unique and so relevant that any good reporter will want the story based on its merits. The assumption is, we’re giving them news for free, they should welcome it.

That’s not how it works. That’s how advertising works, only you pay for that. When you advertise on any platform, from old-fashioned newspapers to Google ads, you pay for the exposure, so you can control the message. It’s transactional. Quid pro quo. Money for visibility.

PR is different. One thing that hasn’t changed in public relations for the past several decades is that in order for something to be deemed newsworthy by a journalist is that you must answer two questions.

Why Do a Story? Why Do it Now?

Most everyone charged with managing a public relations program seems to have a ready understanding of the answer to that first question, why do a story. If someone wants PR exposure, they usually know what they’d like to see at the center of the story.

But many people, even PR veterans, can sometimes lose sight of the need to answer that second question. And if you can’t answer that, you really don’t have a story.

Think of it this way. A good news story is perishable. It has an expiration date, just like that gallon of milk you bought this morning. If you don’t consume the product before the expiration date, it goes bad. That expiration date creates a sense of urgency for the consumer.

So, when we pitch a news story to a journalist, we not only have to convince them that the story is meaningful to their readers, listeners or viewers, but if they don’t get to the story right now, they’ll miss an opportunity. It will be lost. For their part, journalists have to meet the same expectation for their audiences. They must demonstrate that the reader must read, the viewer must view, the listener must listen, all before the subject matter becomes old news.

If the Powerball jackpot today is now up to $500 million and the drawing is tonight, you have the answer to both questions. Do the story because the jackpot is huge and anyone in your audience can win. Do the story now because tomorrow may be too late. There is a narrow window of opportunity.

News Cycles are Short

We often hear terms like “news cycle” and that’s what this is all about. All media follows a news cycle. Journalists only want to spend time on stories their audiences care about now, this week. So, if a story is just as important today as it will be in a month, or it could have been done last month, and there no other defining characteristics that stamp an expiration date on it, it’s not newsworthy.

So, to make a business story newsworthy for the media, we have to put in the work up front. We have to make it newsworthy, and you don’t do that through words alone.

A few years ago, I helped a client launch its organization and its brand. The client was in the energy space and offered many constructive solutions to a range of environmental issues. We were able to tie the client to several hot-button issues that were also the subject of legislation in Washington, D.C.

By identifying pending legislation that was on its own timetable, we were able to position my client and its work in line with that timetable that had a life cycle of its own. This created a sense of timeliness and urgency for journalists to feature my client in their coverage.

At the end of the day, this illustrates that in order to generate media coverage, you have to earn it, you don’t buy it. Media relations is not transactional like advertising. It’s earned by having a full understanding of what news decision-makers need to do to build their own audiences. Then give them more than content. Give them a story to tell and an expiration date to create a sense of urgency.

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