COVID-19 Materials Public Relations

How 2020 Changed Media Relations

By Abby O'Connor


When the coronavirus (COVID-19) was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, every news cycle – national, local, and trade – was consumed and accelerated. The media landscape was shifting on an hourly basis, so setting long-term earned media strategies no longer made sense for most of our clients. To keep in step with reporters, our team of media relations specialists created a series of pitching guides that closely monitored publications, journalists, and news trends in several tech industries.

While we began the pitching guide project as a response to the pandemic, we found the media relations lessons that came out of it aren’t only applicable in times of crisis. Much of what “changed” about media relations during this time was simply getting back to its fundamental goal: thoughtfully building and nurturing relationships with journalists. And we fully expect these changes (or should we call them reminders?) to hold true in the long run.

To mark the end of our pitching guide project, we’re sharing the five media relations lessons we found most valuable in the first half of 2020 – and how you can prepare for future crises.

1. People Come Before Coverage

Over the past few months, we focused on being extra sensitive, empathetic, and as obvious as it may sound – human in our media outreach. When reaching out to journalists, especially proactively, prioritize your relationship with them. In other words, see them first as a person, not as a means to reach your or your client’s goal. Crises have a way of reminding us of our shared humanity, so there is no more important time to invest deeply in your media relationships.

One of the best ways to practice this is to pay attention to what a reporter is doing outside of how it might serve your company’s or client’s interest. For example, Rosalie Chan is a senior reporter at Business Insider covering enterprise tech. But if you follow her outside of her regular coverage, she also pens a weekly newsletter called True Colors, which highlights journalism and other multimedia work by women of color. Our media team has often pitched Rosalie with tech angles, but they also keep in touch with her when it comes to her other (really awesome) projects.

So if you’re a fan of a journalist’s work or read one of their articles and got value from of it – tell them! Think of your media relationships like you would your friendships. Would you want to be friends with someone who only contacts you when they want something?

2. Media Relations is Rooted in Being Helpful

Don’t forget: Media relations provides real value (or at least it should). With thoughtfully tailored outreach, the information provided by PR pros and the companies they represent should be of genuine help to the journalist and their readers. A major element of media relations is sharing resources and supporting journalists. So if you’ve done your research and are in a position to help, or if you have access to intel they otherwise wouldn’t, you have good reason to reach out.

The key here is being honest with yourself. Is the pitch you’re sending or the information you’re offering actually additive? Or are you exclusively pushing your own agenda? If you’re straying towards the latter, it’s time to reconsider your angle.

3. Research Until the Moment You Hit Send

Our best friend for media relations in tumultuous times? Twitter. We’ve constantly kept Twitter open to stay up to date with reporters in real time and have a small window into their lives. With this bit of insight, we can better understand how reporters are being impacted by the pandemic, recession, nationwide protests, and every other challenge 2020 throws at us.

For instance, is their publication furloughing staff? Did their friend just get laid off? Are they struggling to balance working from home with caring for their kids? These tidbits play a huge part in our ability to be sensitive to each journalist’s current priorities.

There are different ways to stay on top of this kind of research. Some of our teams created a top 10 list of priority news outlets to monitor what news, stories, and trends were coming out of each publication. Others created Twitter Lists of reporters for a more specific and curated feed to monitor. And across the company, we have a #mediatips Slack channel, so INKers can share any updates about or from reporters.

Even if you’re not able to keep a constant eye on your Twitter feed, be sure to check a journalist’s tweets from the last week or so before pitching them. You might see an opportunity to personalize your note, or a red flag indicating you should hold on hitting send altogether.

4. Short, Timely Pitches Prevail

As storytellers, we often feel the urge to begin our pitches by setting the stage, or sharing a couple paragraphs of back story to paint a picture. But no one needs context when we’re all experiencing a crisis firsthand. In this environment, it’s best to cut it down. Trim it. Crop it. Chop it.

We found that shorter pitches (2-3 sentences) were more effective and boosted our response rates. We also began to think more immediately, and focused on offering spokespeople, data points, and other resources instead of proposing large-scale (and longwinded) story angles.

There is no such thing as a slow news day in 2020; journalists aren’t hurting for topics. Consider if it’s worthwhile to shift your efforts towards getting included in coverage instead of dictating the full story.

5. Earned Media Isn’t Always the Answer

We’ll always be the first ones to advocate for the value of earned media. PR is woven into the fabric of INK. But 2020 has highlighted, more than ever, the need for integrated communications programs (paid, earned, shared, and owned media).

Diagram of PESO marketing model, encompassing paid, earned, shared, and owned media

With COVID-19 dominating the news cycle – and for good reason – we often had to take a step back and recognize when earned media wasn’t our best option. If your company or client doesn’t have a helpful way to join the conversation, it’s likely best to pause media relations and focus on other channels to achieve your goals.

For some of our clients, we found that creating owned content, such as blogs, white papers, or infographics, allowed us to have greater control over important messages during a time when misinformation, fear, and uncertainty were weighing on the public. An important lesson here was to have consistent and proactive conversations with our clients and teams about staying flexible with our media mix. We also had to set expectations about the feasibility of earned coverage in such an intense and crowded media landscape.

Media Relations in 2020 and Beyond

We’re only halfway through a year that’s already proven to be full of historical turning points – a lot more could change in 2020. What we thought was of utmost importance at the top of the year now seems like yesterday’s news. But, one truth remains constant. We believe these core tenants of media relations will stand the test of time (and any other possible curveball the year throws our way).

Getting back to the basics is sometimes the best way to keep a solid footing. If you want to set a media relations intention for the rest of the year, we like to think in threes: Be sensitive, be helpful, and be prepared.