The War On Media Relations

The following is a guest post by Future Buzz community member Ed Zitron, founder of EZPR.

Image used  via Flickr creative commons license 2.0

When I got into PR in 2008, I fell into a world that had made up its own mystique so powerful that before my first day I had literally no clear idea what I’d be doing. My first day I was given a spreadsheet of phone numbers and email addresses and effectively told “harass them until they do what you want.” I eventually learned this was called “media relations,” that it was really difficult, that it was pretty lucrative, and that a lot of PR people were bad at it. Why were they bad? Because media relations required knowledge about the product, the industry, the journalist and being able to talk like a person who didn’t eat and shit out a few college term papers.

And let me tell you, my first pitches were bad. I was instructed to write like I was writing a college thesis about things that were fairly self-explanatory. So I did it, and even though they read like The Architect from the Matrix, I sent them. Nobody responded. So I’d call, and then the person would typically hang up, or swear at me, or listen with all the attentiveness I’d give a really, really insistent door-to-door door salesman. One that didn’t realise I opened up a door to say hey, uh, buddy I’m good.

Eventually I made up this amazing strategy, where I’d write short emails to the people after asking them what kind of things they wanted to hear about. They’d then write about these things on the internet, making my clients happy who would in turn keep paying the agency I worked for. Eventually I created my own agency so that they’d pay me directly, and this is called a business.

As the business grew, I really stuck to media relations as it was the thing I was good at and the thing that every client seemed to want. In fact, many complained about the crap firms offered like content marketing (“I write your blog”) or vague strategic documents that take a month to write out. A lot of documents, a lot of puffery, a lot of garbage that would hopefully stop the client from firing them when they realised there weren’t any actual media results. Big companies, small companies, every company seemed to want to get press.

This was great. This is great. For me, I guess, because that’s what I do. But for some reason media relations has become some sort of weird thing that the PR industry is desperate to marginalize. After the Business Insider PR50 came out (a top 50 of PR people in tech, with a lot of reporters being the ones who vote, yeah I was on it, I’m writing the blog not you), the Holmes Report was quick to put out the gaslighting “Moving Silicon Valley Beyond Media Relations”. The website, claiming to be “dedicated to proving and improving the value of public relations,” certainly seemed to be looking to devalue one of the more public appreciations for the value of PR. In 2015, the Holmes Report also put out a study that said 15.1% of PR professionals thought media relations will be most relevant of all PR skills in the next decade.

To quote the quote that Adweek quoted, because I won’t link to the damn Holmes Report again:

“Across the world, however, one thing remains more or less constant. Media relations skills (15%) are not seen as particularly relevant. That should cause a measure of trepidation among the older generation of PR industry executives. Such is the nature of change.”

What the fuck? Who are the people that answered this? Are they eating paint? Or are they doing the PR industry’s favourite job – making themselves feel better?

The bloviating PR blogs are desperate to find new ways to make PR people, locked in the loveless marriage that is this job, feel important and/or make up for things that are difficult that they can’t do. PR is at peak pontification, trying to make up reasons why the day-to-day is important and that any problems you have are solvable in listicle form or asinine “learnings.” Perhaps it’s that your press release doesn’t suck, it just needs visuals, or maybe it’s a conversational issue, or maybe you just need to copy a giant brand. Click on the “media relations” section of PRDaily if you want to hurt your brain – there’s one milquetoast article about “mastering media relations” with great tips like “think like a reporter” and “respond in a timely manner,” followed by a bunch of irrelevant news stories and one thing about sentence construction. The same goes for PRNewsonline’s media relations section, with the requisite generic how to get press post, a byzantine post about integrated marketing (reinforce the message through social media? Uh…) and a tribute to well known media relations professional Nancy Reagan.

Most PR subjects aren’t discussed in a substantive manner, because doing so would probably make it fairly obvious that a lot of PR people do a lot of bullshit, but media relations has its own weird place. It’s something is the selling point of most agencies (most have some sort of “we get your brand noticed” schtick on their website, and guess how that happens? It isn’t through their own blog or through tweets, buddy), and a good chunk of them do it poorly by simply mail merging an entire list.

Both Adam and I, two not-actually-reporters, still get a bunch of form pitches from agencies. Real agencies that have millions of dollars a year in revenue.

My theory is that PR people are fighting media relations because it’s A) an actual results-driven process and B) it’s difficult.

They then get two choices. They can either say media relations is unimportant, or make sure that the bad habits that let you do it lazily (and shittily) are standardized, all while having a public face of giving a shit about doing it correctly.

The Twitter account Smug Journo, clearly run by a sneering PR person who, in retweeting every reporter who has a legitimate complaint about a PR person, is effectively saying to PR people “oh they’re just overreacting.” The #PRFail collection of PR people reading mean tweets about PR people seems to be some form of complaint – comparing the horrible things said to celebrities on Twitter (that they read on Jimmy Kimmel) to the legitimate complaints about shitty PR people. Comments on the agency in question were the standard of any kind of “the PR people are bad” post, which means they were “Lol,” “wow, telling it how it is!” and “haha! I’m glad I’m not that PR person!” Entire articles exist to sort of say media relations is important but let’s not forget the rest of the things we do. Then there’re the extremely bad articles encouraging bad behavior, such as any that say cold calling is something you should do even though reporters say they hate it. When I wrote an article for Inc saying cold calling was bad, a random PR person began giving me the world’s least subtle subtweets about how I was a huge idiot and cold calling, in fact, was good.

“Ultimately it comes down to these certain PR people not understanding how to be successful in PR, so they try to cover their weakness,” said Colin Jordan, Senior Manager of Corporate Communications at Egnyte. “Media relations is still a vital aspect of building a brand, and to be a successful PR professional in today’s media landscape it requires more than simply having a pulse and a Gmail account. You need to be educated in your subject matter, have a genuine passion for what you are pitching, and be knowledgeable about who you are attempting to work with. When someone tries to diminish the importance of media relations, it’s simply showing me that they don’t want to invest the time or energy in what it takes to be successful.”

Yet still the PRSA, the closest thing the PR industry has in my mind to the deck of 52 from Operation Iraqi Freedom, even likes to get in on the whole anti-media relations campaign. Even in a post about media relations still being important they can’t help but say content marketing is the future.

They of course publish the words of PR’s very own Lord of the Underworld – Richard Edelman. The multimillionaire CEO of his self-titled near-unicorn PR firm chop shop said “Do not think that PR is [just] media relations. If you have to read PR as media relations, you’re cutting off your future…Give them video or other multimedia. Give them some kind of bounce … Go for big ideas. Don’t wait for the ad people to have big ideas. It doesn’t have to be elegant; it has to be clever.”

This is a really inspiring message for PR people and for sustaining the general perspective that PR is an industry where you get, say, a budget to work with, and enough importance to actually plan and execute something related to video or multimedia. It’s also really inspiring to those who can’t do media relations effectively, such as whoever it is at Edelman that form-pitches me every CES.

It’s really convenient to say that PR isn’t “just” media relations. It isn’t “just” media relations, thus making the statement that obfuscates the truth true. By saying it isn’t just media relations, you are inherently suggesting that media relations is some sort of old school play, that it’s losing its importance, that it’s simply a relic of a bygone era, like the dodo, or the unicycle, or Edelman’s climate change denial division.

Man, I wonder why (to quote Richard Edelman himself) “we operate in a world without trust”?

We use the phrase that something isn’t “just” something else to suggest that there’s a deeper meaning to it, that there’s complexity that is lost at first blush, when PR is almost entirely the opposite. The industry desperately WANTS you to see it as complex, as a dark art, so that when they pay you and you don’t do the thing you’re meant to do (say, get them media results) you can say “well you didn’t get nothing from the campaign.” That big strategy document you got? Lasting value. A template for the future. That media messaging thing they made up? A foundation for your company’s outward speech. Oh, nobody wrote about or knows about you? Well we did all the stuff it’s your fault somehow.

Perhaps it’s that media relations can’t be guaranteed, and relationships are hard to build. Maybe PR people are just lazy. I don’t know. But thanks, I guess. Business is booming because apparently media relations isn’t important.

Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR, a San Francisco and New York based public relations firm. He wrote the best-selling This Is How You Pitch and has been named one of Business Insider’s top 50 PR People in technology three years running, which is why he mentioned it in the piece. His next book, Fire Your Publicist, will be out when he feels like it, also as an audiobook read by James Frain.