Summer is a great reset, especially in higher education where the calendar naturally allows for a break before beginning a new academic year. It used to be a “slower” time, but that hasn’t been a reality for quite a while. Still, for me it remains the best time of year to take stock of what worked, what was new or different from previous years, and what I could improve upon for the coming year.
Since I started working in media relations, the media landscape has been in a constant state of change. I think that’s normal for any industry, but lately the pace of change for media seems accelerated. Shifts that significantly impact how I do my work, as well as the kind of results I can expect, now occur in a matter of weeks as opposed to years.
Throughout the past academic year, there were a few key trends that seemed to have intensified and will inform my strategy going forward.
Stories are being held longer
The first is longer lead timelines, even for daily publications. It is no longer the norm, in my experience, for a faculty member to do an interview that results in a story the next day, or even the next week. More and more often, interviews will be conducted weeks to months in advance of when a story is published. There is still the occasional quick-turn story, but an increasingly bigger majority of stories are held longer. This is important when considering timing on pitches and trying to plan around faculty and administrator schedules, social promotion and other timely news. It also increases the chances of a story being scooped and killed altogether. Things can, and often do, happen in the interim that make a story irrelevant. Managing expectations on timelines is critical for so many reasons, but ultimately it helps relationships with both faculty experts and journalists to communicate clearly on deadlines and anticipated publication dates.
Journalists are stretched even thinner
This year I had more journalists than ever before tell me they liked a story idea or submitted piece, but that they didn’t have capacity to pursue it. Sure, for some it could have been a quick way to let me down easy. But for others, it was more than that. In conversations, reporters and editors noted having to do more with less staff. So it’s not surprising then that in smaller newsrooms where journalists often cover several beats simultaneously, reporters are receiving record numbers of pitches.
It’s important to take a minute and really think about what that means. An overflowing inbox is overwhelming. Reporters don’t want to be the kind of people who just don’t respond to emails, but the sheer volume forces many to delete without replying. In fact, this year I’ve received a number of automated email replies that offer explanations for why they can’t reply, even though they want to. They all cite volume of emails and time constraints. I’ve also noticed that even when journalists do pick up a pitch, it could be weeks later, as opposed to the same day (which used to be the norm). Remember these realities when you’re pitching and timing your follow up. Make sure your pitch is on point, that it aligns with trending topics, that you give them enough time to respond, and that you are providing access to the story elements that will make reporting the story as easy as possible. Doing so could help you gain more coverage while also cutting down on the next trend.
Tension is ticking up between PR professionals and journalists
There has always been what I would consider low-level tension between the journalism world and those of us on the “dark side,” as I’ve heard many reporters “joke.” In fact, my colleague Erin Hennessy and I wrote about it in 2018 for this blog. But maybe you’ve noticed, as I have, what seems like an increasing number of social posts in which journalists freely vent about “bad” interactions with PR professionals, often vilifying the entire industry. That is their right, despite the anxiety it gives me.
To be honest, in many cases, they have valid complaints. (I am often surprised and always saddened to read about instances in which every best practice is ignored in favor of aggressive and unprofessional tactics.) And there are always people lamenting how the media got their story wrong, how they’re biased, how they have an agenda. But it gets complicated when these posts stereotype all PR professionals or all reporters. And it gets dangerous when people choose not to work with certain people or outlets based on their experiences with one individual—or based on posts others have shared.
The reality is that there are a lot of factors on both sides that lead to bad experiences. But there are also many ways to mitigate those, and they all boil down to trying to understand others, what they’re going through, what their goals are and what pressures they’re under. There will always be PR pros and journalists alike who are rude and unprofessional, or who aren’t good at what they do. But they’re in the minority and shutting people or outlets out isn’t the answer. Approaching interactions with empathy can help people on all sides realize that. We can do great work together and often do.