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Building valuable relationships with journalists – a beginner’s guide

Rebecca Smith-Dawkins, digital PR account executive at marketing agency Impression, shares tips on how to work with journalists.

Whether you’ve stepped into your first job after university, or have changed career path and are new to PR, there’s something you should know, first and foremost. Journalists and PRs have a perplexing relationship, they know they need each other in order to survive, but at the same time they’re like siblings; they annoy each other, squabble, fall out and then make up.

As a former journalist I understand the frustrations when dealing with PRs, and now that I’m sitting on the ‘other side of the fence’ at Impression I can relate to the vexations of PRs too. Last year, this topic was explored in more depth, with PRWeek and Press Gazette’s Hacks vs Flacks’ survey, which asked both professions what they really thought about each other.

So what can we (PRs) do about this? Here are a few suggestions on how to start and build valuable relationships with journalists, based on my own experience and from speaking others in the industry:

rebecca-smith-dawkins-digital-pr-account-executive-impression1) Do your research first

This sounds really obvious and you’re probably wondering whether this is just another one of those articles, but bear with. When I was working as a journalist I cannot recall the amount of times I was emailed/called to ask whether I’d be interested in a story that had absolutely nothing to do with the paper’s circulation area (and these were people in senior PR positions). So whether you’re looking to pitch your client’s story to a local news site or one of the biggest nationals – get to know the publication first. Get a feel for the the different ‘patches’ they cover, the type of content and sections they feature and try to imagine where your story would fit in.

2) Create your plan of attack

Many journalists will tell you that they hate being called by PRs, mainly because they just don’t have the time to speak to them (newsrooms are getting smaller, but the pressures remain the same). I agree with this to an extent, but it depends why you’re calling; if it’s to summarise a story that you have a ready-to-go press release on, then an email would suffice, but if it’s something relatively complicated and you feel like you’d be able to explain it better over the phone, then go for it. If you’re taking the latter approach then be wary of journalist deadlines. Deciding on the best time to call depends on how frequent their news gets published. From my own experience on a daily regional newspaper, morning (after the first cup of coffee) is always preferable.

It’s also important to ensure that you’re contacting the right journalist. Some websites suggest sending editorial ideas/press releases to general news@ email addresses, but these inboxes will get flooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of emails every day. Always try to find contact details for a specific journalist where possible – if your company has access to Gorkana then I’d recommend using this. It’s also handy because in a lot of cases it lets you know journalists’ preferences for methods of contact.

3) Don’t beat yourself up over knockbacks

Try, try and try again as the famous saying goes. When you pitch to a journalist one of four things are going to happen:

1) They will say that they’re interested and want to set up a time for an interview with your client / receive additional information

2) They will say they don’t have time to speak to you and ask you to email them with more details

3) They will say say thanks but no thanks

4) They will say thanks but no thanks in a much less polite way

Luckily it’s unlikely that you’ll come across number 4, but there are a few grumpy journalists out there, so be warned – although it’s no different to any other industry. The most important piece of advice I can give is don’t be disheartened if they say no, and don’t let it put you off getting in touch again in the future. It may be that this particular idea wasn’t ‘newsworthy’ enough to be considered this time, but maybe you’ll have the perfect ‘angle’ for them a couple of months down the line.

4) Stay in touch

If a journalist has used your story, then send them a quick thank you email and say that you’ll get in touch with any other (relevant) news in the future. Not a necessity, but one which will be appreciated and keep you on their mind. It’s also worth following them on Twitter, and engaging with them now and again – perhaps by ‘liking’ or re-tweeting a really good article that they’ve written and shared.

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