The media industry is always in flux. It ebbs and flows, responding to structural shifts and economic cycles with periodic waves of consolidation and belt-tightening.
We’re going through one of those waves currently, as COVID has shrunk payrolls around the country. There’s also BuzzFeed’s recent purchase of HuffPost, which may lead to more layoffs just 18 months after BuzzFeed laid off 15% of its workforce.
The picture ain’t pretty.
Put yourself in the shoes of journalists who face an uncertain future in their careers — and an onslaught of pitches in their inbox. As PR pros, we must be empathetic and continually adapt our PR plans to the changing media landscape.
Here are some things to consider as we usher in a new year — and a whole new set of PR plans.
1. Fewer folks doing more work
With fewer people working in newsrooms and at major media outlets, there will be fewer eyes on your pitches. The restructuring also means fewer people doing the same (if not more) work. It’s a numbers game. The stories still need telling, the article quota met.
But now PR professionals face a perfect storm of fewer people doing the same (or more) work. That means you have overworked reporters who are being inundated with more pitches than they were before. Since attention is more scarce, pitches have to be even more honed. It’s a huge challenge, and it can sometimes be hard to tell whether the pitch was mediocre or the journalist was simply slammed and never saw it.
In your follow-ups, you must be extra careful to show empathy, never showing any defensiveness or entitlement in your communications with overworked colleagues in the media.
2. Your CRM is outdated — especially for local contacts
Your list-building tools may not have caught up to the rapid shifts in employment this year. This may lead to a larger-than-usual proportion of bounces. To cut through the complexity, don’t rely solely on the major list-builders. Update your CRM, and use it as the center of your outreach. That way you can share current contact information across your team so everyone isn’t wading through the same bounces.
The COVID wave of media layoffs also has had a disproportionate impact on local newsrooms. Even many independent outlets that have never missed an issue, such as Seattle’s The Stranger, had to temporarily pause production and restructure editorial teams. To adapt your PR strategy, try this tactic from AMW PR’s Angela Trostle Gorman:
“We started using Twitter to reach out to local reporters after combing the outlet's website for current writers. For local broadcast, we now email the desk first with story ideas and then follow up with a call to the assignment desk. It's the best way to ensure your pitch gets through [because] someone always answers the main desk line.”
3. More freelancers = more opportunities
Staff writers may be furloughed or fired, which means that freelancers are filling in more coverage gaps. Because there’s no centralized editorial structure, it can be challenging to pitch to freelancers. However, it creates more opportunities for placement. Freelancers are hungry for good pitches — they want to sell stories, after all — so they’ll become an ally in pitching editors.
As you do your research on Twitter and update your CRM, pay close attention to freelancers who have recently written about relevant topics. There’s also the potential to pitch them on adjacent topics that may align with their other beats in new and interesting ways.
Freelancers give you more opportunities for earned media, which is especially valuable in turbulent times. Rowena Figueroa of Hinge Marketing says:
“As people and businesses face unfamiliar problems, they are scrambling for reliable, valuable information to help them get through this period of uncertainty. Providing much-needed information is not only helpful to others, but it also helps organizations stay relevant even as buyer needs and behaviors shift.”
4. A broad base of relationships pays off
When it comes to getting your email opened, existing relationships perform better than catchy subject lines. So what happens when layoffs disrupt your relationships? You double down, Maleeka Halloway of the Official Maleeka Group says:
“Many of the relationships we established have been challenged as layoffs and such have increased. It's made us step up and build new relationships.”
With newsrooms likely to remain smaller post-pandemic, expand your relationships to include bloggers and influencers. They aren’t just for marketing departments anymore! Sure, the logos don’t quite have the same cachet on your clients’ websites. But with the right brand and audience fit, your clients get in front of higher-quality prospects.
Influencer campaigns and blogger outreach also can mean more opportunity and potential visibility in an environment with fewer traditional opportunities.
5. Make your own news
An owned media strategy never stops working for you. It’s the little engine that could. As you invest in creating content for your client’s own channels, you build a competitive moat. The company blog builds its SEO over time, while the custom content gives you interesting insights to engage stakeholders on social media.
This brand journalism approach also helps you think like a journalist and jump into story trends that are starting to resonate in the media. Think of it like surfing: if you hit the wave too late, you’ll miss the crest. You want to newsjack at just the right moment so you can go the distance and leverage the broader momentum to push your client’s story forward.
This tactic also applies to executive visibility. You can land positive coverage by putting your client’s executives in the spotlight through guest posts. It takes some effort to choose a topic, write the article and land the placement -- but it’s a powerful way to make your own news while also building executive visibility for your clients.
6. Niche down to level up
National news teams may have fewer resources to devote to third-party pitches. And many, such as the Washington Post, won’t write standalone articles about company-sponsored surveys. There are fewer opportunities to see success from classic PR strategies such as branded surveys.
That’s why it can pay off to niche down. Trade outlets are a great tool to level up your coverage book. These industry-focused channels are generally hungry for content that’s relevant to their niches. That’s led to a shift in strategy for Natalie Hastings at Limelight PR:
“I'm often hearing from trade publications, ‘I love that idea! Can you write it?’ The editor likes the topic or pitch, but they lack the resources to cover it. So I'm reallocating resources to provide more bylined stories or to write pre-filled Q&As for trade outlets.”
7. Membership models and paywalls prevail
Global ad spending is set to fall by 10.2% in 2020, spread across linear TV, newspapers, magazines and radio. The drop in ad spending has further accelerated the push to membership models. For instance, Quartz doubled its subscriber numbers this year. As more content lives behind paywalls, it’s going to be a good thing for PR professionals. Subscribers will be more engaged with content from that brand, and that brand will hopefully have more longevity and less turnover.
This preserves media relationships and builds a more sustainable media landscape in the long term. In the short term, it means familiarizing yourself with each outlet’s unique subscriber profile and crafting a pitch that is hyper-relevant to that audience. Figueroa recommends:
“A successful pitch is as much about content as context. You need to reach the right journalists at the right time with the right story. Doing your research on what stories your target publications — and their journalists — want is more important than ever.”
“There’s a reason the roaring ‘20s followed the 1918 pandemic.” —JJ Abrams
Although we’re not out of the woods yet, there’s relief on the horizon. Vaccines are on their way. As the pandemic slowly recedes, the economy will likely come roaring back as pent-up demand releases.
There will likely be plenty of opportunities in this environment to use these tips to further entrench your PR, but one technique never goes out of style: be nice and be helpful. Journalists have a tough gig, and we should strive to make life easier for them so they have time for our clients. After all, it’s what we’re paid to do!
Nick Vivion is the principal at Ghost Works Communications, where he amplifies tech brands with integrated communications across PR, digital, content and brand marketing. He also really misses talking to random strangers. So please say hi: firstname.lastname@example.org.