Media Relationships Don't Matter, and Other PR Fairy Tales

CatCountless times I’ve sat in the office of a potential client. We’re having a great conversation, exploring strategies and messaging. We’re talking about where their company is headed and how PR can help get them there.

And then it happens: “Do you have connections?”

The inference is immediate – “Do you have connections that can quickly get me onto the front page of <CEOs favorite publication>?”

Have you ever sat on either side of that table before? If you have, then you know that this part of the conversation gets, well – weird. So, how do you answer the question?

My short answer: Of course connections with journalists and other influencers matter. But it’s not just about the relationships. The reality is a little more complicated than that. Connections matter, but so does context. As a client, it’s important to understand why you are interested in a PR professional’s influencer network. You may be using it as a yardstick to help gauge her ability and track record. Perhaps you want to leverage her connections for greater visibility on social media. Or maybe you are hoping that her connections will bust open a door to a huge media hit.

There are a million reasons why you want to know if a PR person has connections. While connections are useful, most of the time there are many other more important factors that will determine the success of your campaign. If a PR person selling your services tries to convince you that relationships don’t matter, it’s probably because she doesn’t have any to brag about, and she probably isn’t the right PR person for you.

Where’s Waldo?

Relationships do matter, and I’ll explain more on that later. But let’s tackle the three biggest arguments typically made for why relationships don’t matter. The first one is the shrinking newsroom: how important is it to try to maintain relationships with journalists when they might be gone six months from now? The answer, of course, is that it is doubly important to maintain strong relationships with the media in today’s market, because they’ll remember you (and all the help you gave them) at the next outlet they go to. And if they end up on their own? Then they can still be a great resource for you and your clients, for writing, sanity checks, etc. And the fact that you maintained your relationship through thick and thin will mean a lot to them down the road.

The Story Sells It

The next argument typically made against the value of relationships is the importance of having a great story. Great stories are, after all, what interest reporters, readers and other influencers. If there’s no news, no trend, nothing of interest to the greater community – then it doesn’t matter how many connections a PR person has. The result will be the same. And let’s get real, a stale story like that sounds like a bad advertorial. But a good story that lands in the inbox of an editor from an email address she doesn’t recognize may never see the light of day (or of her computer screen at least).

Hard Work Pays Off

The final argument is that an aggressive PR pro, regardless of the story or the connections, can sell anything. It is certainly true that there are many capable, talented PR professionals who don’t have a stellar book of A-list tech celebrities on speed dial. That doesn’t mean their success rate for generating coverage on behalf of clients isn’t high. They have the secret PR sauce: diligence, and most likely a talent for storytelling.

These people work hard for their clients. They may not be the person to spend a ton of time networking outside of office hours, but it doesn’t mean they’re not generating ink for their clients. I know many of PR professionals that fit into this category. So what if they don’t have a huge social graph? If you’re a company with news to share, these PR people can usually get the job done well.

Can You Handle the (Nuanced) Truth?

Yes, a good story matters. No reputable influencer will want to cover something that has no apparent value to her audience. She will lose credibility, and consequently her network and clout. Before looking at whether a PR person has connections, the company hiring a PR firm first needs to examine their own stories. Do they have something interesting to say? Are they even ready for PR?

But the story isn’t everything. Having the right connections might make the difference between an opened email and a discarded one, regardless of how compelling the subject line was. Diligent professionals will follow up appropriately when they don’t hear back – and this can pay off in droves.

For Clients – Connections are a Nice to Have, Not a Need to Have

“Do you have connections?” is a loaded question. Sure you don’t necessarily need connections to successfully execute a solid PR campaign. But they can certainly help.

Connections, and particularly a PR person’s online social graph, can prove useful to her client. And there are many reasons why they help. Let me share a few scenarios.

Let’s say a company wants to be covered in a specific publication. Even with a great story, sometimes other factors beyond the control of PR can impact whether it ever gets the ink. This is when having a connection on the inside helps. You can’t guarantee ink, but you do have a much better shot at some feedback. This can be invaluable in helping deliver the story that publication needs to finally cover your client.

Or perhaps your client is trying to reach a certain group of influencers online. If the PR professional already has a solid network in place, it shouldn’t take long to further cultivate those specific connections with whom the client is trying to engage. Additionally, having this tight social graph helps when sharing client news with the goal of getting it to the right people via social media.

Connections can also help the PR team keep lines of communication open when they might have otherwise been damaged by a client. Imagine the client decides last-minute to back out of the news you were pitching under embargo. Unfortunately for you, it is the first piece of news you ever pitched for that client. Reporters who already know you will know that they can still trust you, so the next time you approach them with news from that company they are much more likely to respond to your pitch.

For PR Professionals – Connections are a Must

Clients come and go, much more often than not completely independent of the PR firm’s results. What does remain are the PR person’s connections – her social graph.

Let’s go back to that scenario in the office. Can I favorably answer the question “Do you have connections?”

Of course I can. But will I sacrifice them by trying to sell something that’s not newsworthy with the hope of possibly getting the front page of <CEO’s favorite publication>? No way.

Where’s the long-term ROI for anybody in that?

Ruth Bazinet

About Ruth Bazinet

Often called upon as a “PR sharpshooter,” Ruth brings more than a decade of public relations and marketing experience to her work at HB Agency. Her career includes stints at some of the largest tech-focused PR agencies, as well as managing public relations and social programs for Roger Williams University. Early in her career, she spent a few years explaining the wonders of astronomy research for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Ruth earned a B.A. in political science from Syracuse University and is a trained political consultant. Learn more about Ruth

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