Is Public Relations Really About Who You Know?

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“Who knows who is both your best friend and brother…” especially in the business world. Based on Glassdoor’s numbers, your chances of getting a job offer are statistically significantly better (2.6% to 6.6% higher) if you were referred by a current employee than if you weren’t. Personal connections are crucial in business. People want to know who you are before they commit to giving you funding, a piece of business or a job. There’s a reason LinkedIn is the most trusted social network in the U.S.Familiarity creates trust, so who you know is often just as important as what you know. As a publicist, I’ve developed relationships with journalists in multiple verticals: political reporters, software reporters, business reporters, mommy bloggers, you name it. I’ve worked with journalists for press conferences, product launches, crisis situations, trend pieces, etc. The natural assumption here is that my relationships with reporters help my clients get stories. And that assumption isn’t entirely wrong. If I have a hot story, I know that I can pass it to a “friendly” of mine and, chances are, they’ll break the story. However, just like you shouldn’t hire your brother’s girlfriend who comes in an interview through the backdoor, underqualified and not quite right for the position, nepotism is a journalist’s worst enemy.

This Isn’t News

Newsrooms have steadily shrunk in size over the past several years. A journalist who exclusively covered startups may now cover all business beats…and maybe technology, too. But as newsrooms have dwindled, the PR agency industry has grown by 30% over the past 5 years. For journalists, this means more emails, less time to read them and even less time to write stories. If a journalist sees an email from someone they know — especially someone who has given them good content in the past — they’re more likely to open it. They’ve “vetted you,” know you’re easy to work with and that you’re probably helping them out with a great story idea.

However, it’s important to note that trust like that — which I’ve built over years — can be shattered in a single bad pitch. What I’ve put in that email to my friendly reporter better be good. If it’s not, the chances of this journalist using me as a “go-to” again will go down significantly. As with any important relationship, I shouldn’t take advantage of the other person’s trust to try and push something that only serves myself (or my client). If you’re a business owner who has created a relationship with a journalist, you should pay close attention here: just because you’ve developed a good rapport with a journalist doesn’t mean they will or should take every story you send them, especially if the story isn’t really “news.” Going back to my example above — remember I said a friendly reporter is happy to break “hot news” — not weak stories just because we have a relationship.

News is a headline that makes you want to click. News is something fresh and interesting that you’ve never heard before. News is data that forms a trend that might be interesting to a group of readers. News is an exclusive piece of information.

Unfortunately, news is hard to create! Unless you’re Elon Musk or President Joe Biden, reporters don’t care that you exist. So how can you make them interested? And how can you nurture the relationship without being annoying or self-serving?

What You Know

This is where “what you know” comes in handy. You or those in your business (or in my case, my clients) are experts at something. This is your advantage. Tell the journalist why you’d be a great source if they ever need you. Be specific and let them know what you can offer them, when and if they need it. If you can both offer value to each other, you’ll see the relationship grow. (Caveat: you have to follow through if you get the call — but that’s another post!)

You’ve likely noticed an increase in contributed content over the past several years. Contributed content, or content provided by expert sources, has been a beneficial way for news outlets to supplement editorial coverage with their new, smaller staffs. Offering journalists help in the form of contributed content could be a good way to keep your relationship going with them. However, it’s important to make sure a) they accept contributed content and b) you can provide interesting, valuable, non-promotional content to their readers.

Being an expert will never go out of style. Playing up your strengths as an expert is a smart way to push your thought leadership (and in turn, your company) forward. Again, it’s all about what you can offer the journalist and their readers, not just expecting that they will write about you just because you ask.

State of Media

And isn’t this the best coverage for you, anyway? With a steady decline in trust for media over the past several years, it’s more important than ever that journalists keep their integrity by covering stories based on merit, not because of a relationship they have. When you’re reaching out to journalists, it’s key to think about their readership over your relationship.

For a moment, let’s pretend PR people can pull the favor of coverage in a meaningful media outlet for a story that really doesn’t deserve the coverage. Think about this end: if clients call you to get average (or below average) stories covered, reporters and editors will soon catch on, and you’ll lose the “friendlies” you have — even for the good stories.

So, when it comes down to who you know in the media, yes, it is absolutely important to have relationships. This is where the value of PR and seasoned PR professionals comes in. But, anyone who tells you they can get a story covered because of their relationship rather than the merit of the story is doing it wrong. This isn’t how relationships work. Who you know can get you far, but only so far. At the end of the day it has to be coupled with “what you know.”

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