Reporters Don't Work For You, And How Media Relations Isn't Dying

Ed Zitron 7 min read

One of the common cycles that PR goes through is the “end of traditional media.” I started PR in 2008, and I think I’ve seen 15 different cycles that claimed that some sort of thing was going to end traditional media - websites, TV shows and the like - and replace it entirely, rendering media relations (getting people on those websites and those shows) useless. I’m going to liberally use the term media relations here to refer to “pitching a reporter a thing to write about.” It is not complex, it’s just easier to write media relations every time.

Some background: there is a movement in PR that’s existed for years that has attempted to claim that media relations is dead. It has existed since I started my career (a career in media relations) and exists to this day. It’s also very contentious in PR because a lot of PR people say ‘oh there’s way more to PR than media relations.’ They then say “oh there’s strategy, and there’s media training, and then uh, there’s messaging.’ These are all things that ultimately mean nothing if you don’t interface with the media.

From what I remember, mommy blogs, YouTube, influencers, social media and company blogs were going to all be the things that ended media relations. People love talking about media relations being dead, they’ve been doing it for years, and major PR sites like PRWeek love to say stuff like “it’s on its last legs” (this article was from 2017).   Andreessen Horowitz’s plan to create their own media outlet is the latest version of the Death of Media Relations narrative - that the media cannot be worked with, that the media does not care, and on some level the “they don’t care” side is correct - they do not care about the vast majority of what they’re being sent.

The important thing to do whenever you read about traditional journalism (and by extension media relations/traditional PR) being “dead” is think about the motives behind the person saying it. PR people love writing media relations is dead because it requires you to have generally rounded knowledge about the subject you’re pitching, the client you’re pitching, the reporter you’re pitching and you can’t really cover it up with bullshit. It is the vested interest of a lot of PR people to say that pitching reporters is dead because it requires a lot of synthetic thinking rather than the memory-based “I can answer a question!” thinking they’re used to doing from college.

The truth is that it’s harder. There are less reporters to pitch, and less reporters than there were a few years ago doing product-focused press. There’s more “I need a good source who can actually say something of worth” going on than ever, and plenty of places that write about interesting people doing interesting things, assuming you have substance. What substance is in this case is revenue, or funding, or a product that applies to a large amount of people in a large way, or a product that applies to a very specific niche in a meaningful way.

This means that good media relations for some people may be focused on getting things like TechTarget over TechCrunch - extremely focused enterprise coverage that’s read by extremely focused enterprise readers - but that’s even harder because it requires even more reading and even more time invested in finding the right person. And developing that relationship is entirely digital now, which means you have less space to do it, and you have to be able to talk normally online, which is a chore for PR people who can’t talk normally in real life.

I also think that people misunderstand what makes a good story for a reporter, and how much of that comes down to right-place-right-time. I’ll hear PR people whine that the story they pitched was identical to one that was run by the same reporter about a different company a month or a year later, without them realizing that journalists are human beings that both forget stuff and have demands of the job that change on an hourly basis. That thing you pitched them may indeed have been wrong at the time, and then become right later on - or it may never have been right, and the way it was framed to them by someone else worked at that moment.

Developing relationships with reporters - even cordial ones - is done regularly in the service of making them more likely to give you more time to either argue your case or more mental space for whatever pitch is to fit it into their coverage. There’re many times where you’ll develop something approximating a friendship with them, but you should also know that this friendship does not extend to bribery - it may mean they’ll give you more consideration, or try and work out where you’ll fit in, but it doesn’t mean  that they owe you anything, anymore than being close friends with someone means they owe you a favour at their job.

Why The Misunderstandings Happen

I think a lot of the frustration that PR people have with media relations is that they cannot bullshit through it, and results are results. If you are not getting coverage, it is very difficult to satiate someone that wants coverage, kind of like getting someone extra mashed potatoes when they ordered a steak. It’s also genuinely a frustrating job at times - when you have something you know fits someone and they still say no, and you have to walk away and say "it didn’t work” and the client asks why, and the answer is a “not tonight Henry” rather than anything you can learn from or improve on. Sometimes it takes weeks (or months) to deliver something, and every moment you’re not delivering something feels to the client like you’re having to justify your existence.

This is why PR firms have carefully-curated time-wasting activities, and hate media relations - it’s high risk (in the sense that tying your success to it requires you to actually do it) and high reward (it has real meaningful effects on the company - be it traffic to a website, in recruiting, used as a sales tool, and so on) work that is relatively tough to learn, and I’d argue requires a level of basic talent to do it all day every day and keep producing. It is a fundamentally exhausting job that doesn’t really have a beginning or end - you are always on the hook for more coverage, always having to find more reporters, and your day basically ends when reporters stop working. You are at others’ mercy at all times, which is tiring, but hey, it’s a good paying job and I can be on the computer all day.

The reason founders oftentimes don’t like it is because they’ve either been burned by bad agencies or find the world easier to digest when journalists do not have any power over their futures. There are plenty of companies that have got big without splashy press coverage, don’t get me wrong, but I think that there are founders that do not like the idea that someone who isn’t rich can control their future. Journalism does, on some level, choose its winners and losers (hence the existence of businesses like my own), and thus when a reporter won’t write exactly the narrative they want, the founder’s frustration lies in the fact that positivity cannot be bought from said reporter - or, at least, that negativity cannot be suppressed.

And in both cases, their natural response is that of a baby - throwing their toys and refusing to play anymore - versus attempting to build a relationship or have a discussion, or trying to actually talk to the press and work out something, which applies to most companies that aren’t giant multi-billion dollar entities.

Maybe it’s also how many people in PR (and founders too!) see the media as working for them - a working version of being the protagonist of reality - and that when a reporter refuses to do something it’s them “not doing their job.” The nice version of this is saying that a reporter “should cover this” because it’s “on their beat,” which misunderstands the chaotic flow of reporting - filling coverage that you think is right roughly at the time that it’s happening, and trying to plan 300 things that may or may not include things PR people send.

The Ratio Fallacy

PR people love to talk about the ratio of PR people to reporters being out of whack as a  proof point that media relations is dying (and, by extension, journalism itself is too). This is usually a self-serving narrative to sell services - Weber Shandwick says that the PR Industry has “helped fill the gap left by the shrinking news industry,” which is both untrue and insane, and only exists to spread the narrative that journalists desperately need PR people to bug them all day. PRDaily’s smug “there are more of us than there are of you” piece claims that there are 6 PR people for every journalist - claiming that there were 88,000 journalist jobs in 2019 without qualifying that with the number of PR people. This is likely because the number they’re using is because of the overall “public relations specialists” number from the OES of 244,730 - a number that seems to combine entire swaths of industries’ use of public relations and doesn’t break down those who are social media managers, content marketers, or other such jobs.

It’s a convenient narrative that exists to position public relations as the dominant force versus journalism - that they are weakened, broken, and need PR to exist. The reality is that PR people need journalists, and while there are too many PR people pitching, I do not think that journalists need PR people. Muckrack simply made up a stat that says 95% of pitches are rejected, likely to continue to convince PR people that they need a $10,000+ a year piece of software to find reporters to pitch, but the truth is that if you are pitching less you are rejected less because you are reading more (theoretically).

The idea that PR people need to exist for journalism to function is also funny, because oftentimes when PR people are needed - for responses, for answers to questions, for booking stuff - they are used to shut down communication. The job a good PR person (or a good source) is being useful and trying to use the signals they get to do a job for their client that ends up benefiting the reporter, which is both harder and more common than it sounds.

I think the entire issue with PR people is that they aren’t comfortable with admitting they don’t have control. They do not have control over a reporter’s actions - they are only there to try and influence said actions in a way that’s mutually beneficial - and when they have to progress through their life and career operating in a dynamic where they lack power, they get angry and attempt to change the narrative to make themselves feel more powerful. These are the acts of weak minds and weak people, and I advise you to realize your place in the world. It’s totally fine to be someone that operates around other people versus the other way - you don’t have to milk cows, you don’t have to save lives. You just have to send emails. It’s not that hard.

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