As a public relations professional, your relationship with journalists is one of the most defining — if not the most important — investments you’ll make in your career. After all, the responsibilities of your job are in the name itself: relations. Building them, cultivating them, amassing them for the public. It’s all the nature of the gig, and it’s an asset that can’t be discounted. As Lindsay Smolan, the founder of VLIV Communications says, working well with writers is not only recommended but vital for your success. “Of course, for the obvious reason that working well with a journalist helps you to do your job in securing media coverage, but if you develop a strong relationship with a journalist, you'll also be able to garner valuable insight from them on occasion,” she says.
In fact, a journalist friend might be able to provide some off-the-record feedback as to why the product isn't getting media coverage and how to better pitch to other writers. “When you work closely with a journalist, you'll also be top on their list when they do story call-outs that you can submit clients to, and it helps you see what topics are currently trending for editors and may provide ideas on how to position a client better,” she adds.
And while much has changed in the last several decades in the media industry, relationships with journalists have been a core truth that’s remained constant, according to Jason Myers, a senior account executive at The Content Factory. “When you've established a reputation with a writer as someone who pitches what the writer needs and you've proven that you deliver what you promise in your pitch, you will be more likely to have your emails opened and read,” he shares. “If your pitch is never read, it has no chance of converting into press coverage, so you can see why the most basic practice of earning trust and delivering value is essential to standing out in a field crowded by other publicists competing for the same spot in an article.”
If you are struggling with building enduring relationships with journalists, consider it one of your priorities in the year ahead. Here, PR professionals share their best tips on how to improve:
Become a resource.
We all have that one friend that always pops up when they need something but is nowhere to be found when the tables are turned. This fairweather friendship won’t last long since reciprocation is what makes any connection work. That’s why it’s essential to be a resource to writers, rather than constantly pitching, according to Yvette N. Harris, the founder and CEO of Harris Public Relations. “As publicists, sometimes we concentrate only on making sure we get our client's brand or event in the media. But not about being a resource to reporters,” she says.
There are many ways to do this, but to name a few, Harris recommends introducing them to other publicists or resources in your network that might be helpful, letting them know that you are there for them outside your client's narrative or project so on. This is an effective public relations strategy since it works to build rapport and trust.
Always be kind and respectful.
It may seem like a super-simple task, but kindness and respect go a long way in connecting with anyone, including relationships with journalists. Little things — like spelling their name correctly and learning their pet peeves — will share you care about their workflow. It takes time to get to know quirks and preferences, but it’s a worthwhile public relations strategy, Smolan says. “Some editors are fine for you to follow-up a few times, but some absolutely hate it when you send more than one follow-up email,” she recommends. “Follow editors on social media (but don't pitch them there, unless their profile specifically says it's OK!) to learn their areas of coverage, join networking and Facebook groups meant for PR pros and journalists, and most of all, be respectful and patient.”
Journalists are incredibly busy and overwhelmed by their inboxes, so the last thing they need is a publicist constantly checking in, she adds.
Be helpful, even if there’s no immediate gain.
When your higher-ups and clients constantly push you for updates on stories or for additional coverage, it’s normal to feel anxious and under pressure. Though it can be a lot to handle, Myers says no matter how busy you get, always consider making a bit of time to help journos out when you can. “I'm a firm believer in karma both in my personal and professional life because I've witnessed its results,” he says. “If you're able to scratch a writer's back when they've got the itch, there may be a time down the line when they remember your goodwill and return the favor. Even if there never is a reciprocal exchange, it feels good to be of assistance to the folks we interact with and partner with regularly. They become an extended work family of sorts if you're in this job for the long haul.”
Research the journalist and follow their work.
How can you know what to pitch a writer if you don’t keep up with their latest bylines? Before you start shooting off emails, Harris says to do your due diligence and learn their beats. “Make sure that you understand their audience. Don't pitch them an item that you know they don't write about it. Just as you want them to understand what you work on, they feel the same way,” she continues.
Also, it’s essential to know that many PR databases are outdated, so it’s part of your job description to double (and triple) check. “Just because a fancy tool that you pay a lot to use, says a journo writes for x, y, and z outlets — if they haven't contributed there since 2015, you're wasting time. You might get a more accurate look at their current beat by checking their LinkedIn experience section or their Twitter bio,” Myers recommends.
Never miss a deadline.
When building relationships with journalists, one of the worst offenses you can make is missing a deadline. While things, of course, happen that are out of your control, it’s always better to overcommunicate and warn writers that a client may be late. If you don’t, you could potentially put them in a bind scrambling to find another source, or even worse, cause them to miss a deadline. This puts their reputation with an editor at stake, and thus, no one wins.
If you can work to get the writer what they need before a deadline to give them time to breathe and make any necessary edits, Smolan recommends. “If you can't meet their deadline, let them know as soon as possible so that they can make alternate arrangements, whether looking for a new interview source or product to photograph,” she adds.
As Myers says, a friendly rapport with a journalist could mean the difference between getting your client placed in an article at the last minute. But to do this, you need to be more than a talking head or random email. You should be a human, and this requires kindling a genuine professional friendship with writers.
To do this, Harris urges PRs to keep the line of communication open. “Send a hello, and how are you email, every once in a while, even when you are not pitching anything to them. Congratulate them on an award or milestone that they have shared on social media or that you have read about them,” she continues. “You will be surprised how much your working relationship grows with them. Remember, journalists are people too.”