For decades, the art of pitching stories to journalists to secure positive media coverage has been at the core of what most PR agencies do and although it may be ‘fake news’ to say this ‘media relations’ avenue is dead, it’s certainly dying quickly. The reason is very simple; the pool of available journalists and quality publications PRs can target is shrinking. In the past year, according to the British Labour Force Survey, the number of journalists fell by 11,000 or 13 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of PR specialists has risen by 5,000 in the past year. Of course, the figures for full-time employed journalists varies a surprisingly large amount year-on-year but nevertheless, there’s no denying the long term downward trend.
Most PR executives will know only too well that the amount of specialist business trade publications has fallen off a cliff. Many follow the same grim process, moving from print to digital only, then cutting staff numbers, before attempting paid-for coverage only or a paywall, then sadly folding. Local newspapers are faring even worse and many of the national newspapers have whittled down their specialist reporters in areas such as technology to a minimum. In short, there’s a decreasing pond of journalists that more and more PRs are fishing in. You could argue that the best stories, intelligently pitched by skilled agencies, will still win out. Unfortunately, journalists, as they will often tell you, are increasingly time-pressured. This means media relations is increasingly becoming a game of pot luck. Interesting, complex stories that require time to explain get short shrift. Smaller businesses with a great story to tell lose out to more mundane stories by household names. Even more precious column inches are taken up by easy-to-produce, Twitter-comment-based articles.
This all may sound a bit grim to read. However, it’s not a case of moaning about the inevitable, but rather, recognising the trend and responding accordingly. If your clients measure your success purely on the level of coverage you produce, you’re going to have to change that metric. Similarly, if you only have a media relations service, you must add social, copywriting, stakeholder relations and a host of other options. I recognise that many agencies will be quick to point out they already do this. But do you really? Are your staff actually trained well in these skills or do they just dabble? When you pitch, do you simply sell these services as a nice add-on to the core of media relations, rather than a fundamental aspect? Are your credentials built entirely around the nice features you’ve placed in national newspapers? Do you measure the success of junior staff on the coverage they earn for their clients? If the answer to the above is ‘yes, yes, no, no, no’ you can ignore me. If not, you should start looking seriously at your offering, training and strategy.