Don’t let interns loose on the media

One of the myths in PR is that asking a journalist if they’re going to use a media release will improve coverage results.

Every year, journalists around the world write about how dumb and annoying this practice is. And it is. The fact they write about it every year (for the past 20 years at least) also says that many agencies and corporate PR teams still aren’t getting the message.

If you sent a media release:

a) the journalist is going to assume (rightly usually) that all of their competitors were sent pretty much the exact same story. So it’s not really news any more. (There are exceptions of course).

b) unless their or your email was actually down – then they did receive it. So asking them if they got it is pretty silly. We don’t ring anyone else usually to ask if they got the email we just sent them.

And asking, ‘Are you going to use it?’ is an equally annoying question.

However, for some reason many companies and agencies do insist on calling the media and asking these two questions.

When you’re talking about business to business communication, first up, if your news is important, ring or email the journalist first and explain the story and what you can specifically offer them in terms of content, spokespeople and supporting resources. Every news outlet is different – so customise what you offer to suit their readership.

If it’s run of the mill content then a media release can work to some extent and may get some coverage.

Anyway – how to manage basic PR processes is not the point of this blog!

It’s to draw attention to the fact that many agencies and some company PR teams are using interns to make the ‘Did you get the media release? Are you going to use it?’ calls.

This is bad news on several fronts (apart from the fact that’s it’s a pet hate of the media). Here’s my list.

1. For most companies and agencies, the relationships they have with the media have taken years to develop and are highly valued. Why on earth would you ask the most junior people in an organisation to get on the phone and speak with the media at all – ever?

2. Interns don’t know anything usually about the client, their business strategy or the content in the media release. So if they get asked a tough question by a journalist, they can’t answer it. It might not even be a tough question. It’s annoying to journalists who’s time is wasted and belittling to interns who suddenly realise they’re out of their depth and their own name and reputation, right at the start of their career, is taking a beating. Not a nice place to be for anyone really.

3. Companies are entrusting agencies to represent their brand and build media relationships on their behalf. They must be horrified to learn of agencies that deploy interns – who, through no fault of their own, manage to do the exact opposite of what was intended.

4. Interns can’t pick up on media feedback and adapt their pitch content or come up with fresh ideas to take to the journalists that might make the story fit better with the news agenda of the day. They will follow directions as best as they can – and plough on regardless in many cases.

5. Interns get yelled at, hung up on, receive crushing emails and, unfortunately for the entire PR industry (and probably the media to some extent as well), can emerge from their few months of internship in a state of shock and disappointment. And let’s remember, most Communications courses these days need a near perfect leaving exam mark to get into. So these are some of the brightest people in the country who, thanks to a very ordinary internship experience, swear off the sector all together – and rethink their entire career path.

I can’t tell you how mad this makes me, particularly after conducting many interviews already this year with recent graduates who relayed horror story after horror story about how they told to ‘follow up media releases’ during their internship and got an entirely predictable response from the media.

We have a chronic staff shortage in the PR industry yet too many agencies and companies are tossing interns into terrible situations to get themselves out of a short-term bind (or they honestly think that doing media follow up is ‘good work for an intern’).

As agency owners at least, we owe our future super stars a lot more than this.

Why sending media releases is a dying art

Media training 101Companies regularly ring us to price ‘sending out a media release’, and in almost every case, we explain the chances of receiving coverage is unlikely if this is their only tactic – unless the media already has an interest in them.

This is the result of several factors including:

  • falling advertising support means there are less pages being produced in many printed publications, which means less space to fill with editorial content
  • online publishers, professional and consumer generated, have increased in numbers, many focused on niche sectors and needing unique content
  • receiving a media release flags to a journalist that the news has been broadly distributed – instantly rendering it less newsworthy in most cases.

There is more competition between publishers than ever before.  The days of several or more publications simultaneously running a mildly interesting news release on face value have gone. Media outlets compete to find angles and stories their competitors don’t have, apart from the huge stories that they can’t afford to ignore.

So if you send a media release (and don’t do anything else) then you may as well write “I’ve sent this same news to all your competitors” across the top of it.   You probably know what happens next – not much.

That said, you still need a media release; it will be useful as a backgrounder or a fact sheet to back up the other media activities you do, and it is useful to have all the facts and client approved quotes and messages written down.

It is also useful to link to it from your newsroom, load it onto PR newswires and other news sites so it gets profiled by Google. Just don’t expect it to result in a large breaking news story on its own.

If your news is important and you want to engage with the media, then you need to invest time customising your angles and offering resources that best suit each of them.  Give them something they can actually use.  Often the best thing you can offer is a good quality spokesperson (who has the expertise, an opinion and some in-market experience to draw on) who can explain the news, and why it’s important.  More importantly, they can provide answers to the different questions that different journalists ask.

So, is this approach the silver bullet?  Well, no.  The reality is, the companies who usually ask us to send out a media release have rarely, if ever, spoken to the media before.  That means they have an even heavier load to lift.  If the media hasn’t heard from you before, they wouldn’t know if you’re important or not, which makes it very hard to know whether to pay attention to what you say.

My advice?  Think long term.  Get to know the journalists and media outlets you’re most relevant to.

Track their stories and see what they’re interested in and then introduce yourself and your company to them.  In 20 minutes on the phone or over a coffee you can quickly walk the journalist through your company profile, what it does and the kind of successes it’s having.  Set context, put a face to a name, answer any background questions the journalist has and leave it at that.  Then when you have relevant news and you get back in touch, the context has already been set.  You’re not trying to explain who you are before you explain what your news is.

In summary, distribute media releases sparingly.  Pitch important news – it will give you a much better outcome and, provided you are actually pitching real, relevant news, journalists will usually appreciate it as well.