When interviewing for what would have been one of my first PR jobs, the CEO of a hospital asked me who I knew in local media. She wanted to find out if I brought a network to the job that would help her organization. Because I had worked in radio, TV and newspapers prior to this, while I knew most everyone in town, I also knew that didn’t matter.
You can know your mother, or father, or sister or brother, but that doesn’t mean they’ll do whatever you ask whenever you ask it.
The same is true in the media. Just because you know people and trust them, and they trust you, it doesn’t mean you can make a career out of simply trading on your relationships. This is shallow, gratuitous and will wear thin soon enough.
That’s not to say having connections can’t work for you or that it’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But when it comes to publicity and media relations, it means next to nothing.
That’s why whenever a prospective client over the years has asked me the same question, I answer as I do here, and I quickly look for a way not to take on the client in question. I know that anyone coming into the client-agency relationship with that mindset from the client-side is not likely to change his or her view, and so for me, or anyone they end up hiring, it’s a losing proposition.
In 2023, the way newsroom musical chairs happen, it really doesn’t matter who you know today. That will change tomorrow.
So, what does count? If you’re serious about media relations, you need to know how to do the reporters’ job better than the reporters themselves. You need to know what’s expected of them and how they go about meeting those expectations. Most importantly, you have to know how to anticipate what will be required of them today, specifically, as in what stories they will be required cover. How they will be expected to cover them. What the narrative will and should be. And you have to meet that need.
You have to know where to reach out, when to reach out, how to reach out, and when to wait. You have to build relationships with reporters when you don’t have a story to pitch, not because those reporters will be easy contacts when you need them, but rather, so that you have a network that provides you with the finger-on-the-pulse intelligence you need to do your job.
No reporter is going to take your pitch simply because you’re you, or because of the power of your personality, or the strength of your relationship. A reporter or an editor will only take a story if they see that it fits the format and formula of their newsroom right now. If you can do that, you don’t need to have a prior relationship with any specific reporter in that newsroom to do your job in media relations.
So, if you’re a prospective client, and you ask me who I know, my answer is this: I know a lot of people but you’re asking the wrong question. I know the terrain and I know a good story and how to frame a good story. I know the process and continue to get results that way. But, if you prefer to hire someone who will tell you only what you want you want to hear, I have some people I can recommend.
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Tim O’Brien is a veteran communicator and operator of O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh. Get in touch.