Guest column: Some top-notch PR tips from a communications pro

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The following is a Provident View guest post from Sean B. Pasternak, AVP, Global Communications at Manulife:

This summer, our external communications team met with notable reporters from a variety of backgrounds to get a sense of what they're looking for today, and how we can work better together in the future to meet those needs.

Gathering this kind of real-world intelligence is crucial. While I spent the first 20 years of my career as a journalist, it's not lost on me that it's been more than six years since I was an active part of a newsroom — so much of the media landscape has changed since then. And while my personal experience may provide beneficial insights to our company, there will always be a diversity of experiences in terms of how reporters pursue their craft, what interests them and - just as importantly - what doesn'tinterest them (and their editors).

These meetings have given us some tremendous insight into the modern newsroom. Here are just a few of the important takeaways we've gathered:

1) Don't "press release" everything

Newsrooms are relying less on traditional press releases (aka news releases) than ever before. According to a survey of U.S.-based journalists released last year by Muck Rack, some 53 per cent of respondents said they don't rely on press releases at all, while only three per cent said they heavily rely on news releases sent through a news wire.

While there's certainly a time and a place for disclosing information via press release... to me, this is just one tactic; something that potentially can be expensive and doesn't always necessarily resonate with your intended audience. There are several other tactics we can use that will be helpful with reporters, including personalized email outreach, background meetings and embargoed announcements.

2) What’s the NEWS here?

Reporters have every right to get peeved when they receive a pitch from some overzealous PR person about a concept that isn't remotely newsworthy to them or their audience. Having not only been a reporter receiving that type of pitch, but also the overzealous PR person giving said pitch... these can be tricky waters to navigate. You always want your phone call (or email) to mean something, and poorly thought-out pitches won't help with that at all.

An editor I respect dearly once explained to me that "news" is, by its very definition, the inherent surprise in a development. Pro tip: if something is widely expected to happen or just isn't interesting enough to register as a surprise, it's probably not going to be perceived as news by the media.

3) Doing more with less

This is a big one. Virtually all the reporters we spoke with mentioned how budgets are tight and resources are scarce. While that shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has been following the industry, it is important to proceed accordingly. Pitches and concepts that may have been successful even five years ago aren't going to necessarily do as well when newsroom constraints are more pronounced than ever.

The question then becomes, how can communicators help solve that? Are there ways we can be particularly useful or helpful?

4) Know your audience

We asked most of the reporters we talked with about their audience. Quite candidly, it's kind of surprising many PR agencies and departments may not employ the same due diligence.

Very simple questions such as "Who are you writing for?"; "What's your editorial mandate?"; "What topics do (or do not) interest you?" and "Who do you consider your key competitors?" can really help to shape how one interacts with that reporter going forward.

5) "Us too!"

This refers to the practice of a PR practitioner reaching out to a reporter after they've published a story to inform them that their client or company is doing something similar.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with helpfully pointing this out, explicitly as an FYI; after all, you never know when a reporter may want to visit this subject again. But when it's written as a story pitch... the journalists we spoke with explained this isn't an altogether productive tactic. Instead, they challenged us to pitch them a new angle for a follow-up story.

6) The importance of diversity

Lots has been written on this in the recent past — having a diverse team of storytellers should be a no-brainer. The reporters we spoke with emphasized the need for this as well, as it vastly improves the experience for their readers/viewers/listeners.

While it's a point of pride that my company truly embraces diversity and inclusion in everything we do, there's still important work to be done, and not just for the media but for all of the stakeholders we serve.

7) Be accessible!

This one was a pain point for me as a reporter and it apparently still persists today. If your client, company or cause is making a major announcement or asking the press to cover something, it just stands to reason that you should be prepared to field calls from the media!

Whether that means having appropriate spokespeople available or even just answers ready for some reasonable questions... ghosting the media when they're calling on you can ultimately be a reputation-killer.

There were, of course, many other important points we discussed over the course of the summer... but I don't want to give away all the secrets we've learned!

Follow Sean Pasternak on Twitter @seanbpasternak