Public Relations and Its Infatuation with "Coverage"

An Industry's Reliance on the Media When a future public relations professional is in college, taking courses within a PR or comms department, they learn a number of different things - research, list building, plan development, social media, event management and marketing, and media relations. Professors try to give students a well-rounded education on the profession and an introduction to the different things they’ll likely encounter once they begin working full time.

So why then, after a student graduates and enters the working PR world, is there such an inordinate emphasis placed on media relations - pitching and getting coverage?

It might shock you to hear this, but media relations is not synonymous with public relations.

The definition of public relations used by the Public Relations Society of America is as follows: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Note that coverage, media, nor pitching is found anywhere in that definition.

Yet, if you asked a random person on the street for a definition of the PR industry, they would surely say something about getting press coverage. Actually, if you asked many PR people, their definition would most likely include something about press coverage.

Why is that?

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The PR industry wasn’t founded on getting coverage. Most versions of the history of the profession touch on two-way communication with the public, informing/educating the public or influencing the public. While many early PR practitioners did use media coverage as a tactic, their goal was not simply to get media coverage. Media was a means to an end. It helped them reach people.

Fast forward to the present day PR industry. Many contemporary practitioners, when developing a PR plan, will list media coverage as a goal. In fact, at times these PR plans consist entirely of coverage. It’s sometimes included as a tactic, strategy, goal and sometimes even an objective.

It’s the wrong way to develop and plan, yet I’ve seen it done too many times to count.

Why is that?

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Pursuing coverage has become a default for the PR industry. Have a launch, announcement, any little bit of interesting news? Pitch it out! It’s become the easy solution, the easy answer, the easy proof that the PR person or team brought value.

I’m not saying that getting coverage is easy. It is NOT easy to get coverage for your employer or client. It’s hard work.

I’m saying it’s become easy to rely on pitching as the basis of a PR program, and unfortunately, from time to time, the entire program.

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I’ve written before about PR’s strategy problem. The industry’s reliance on media is another example of that. When informed of an upcoming announcement and asked for a plan to support it, most PR people jump straight to thinking of potential people to pitch. They want the announcement to reach the maximum number of people.

But is it the right thing to do?

Why isn’t more thought put into who actually needs to know about the announcement? You know, the people who could purchase the company’s products or services. Many PR people think they’re doing this by segmenting and targeting the publications they pitch. We have a network security product, so we’ll pitch the security trades. We have an ad tech product, so we’ll pitch the advertising trades.

Sometimes that can be a simplistic attempt at audience segmentation and targeting.

Two quick stories:

  • I worked with an education technology start-up that developed a product for children ages two to twelve. Their target audience was parents since that’s who would be purchasing the product. They had a significant, new update to their product and wanted to build some awareness for it with potential customers. We held a planning session to come up with a plan. Once we reached the tactical part of our discussion, someone from the company threw out the idea of pitching publications like TechCrunch and Mashable. Many of the company’s competitors had previously appeared in these. Immediately after the idea was thrown out, the CEO and founder jumped into the conversation: “The only people who read those are our competitors. Our target audience doesn’t read those. We'd only be reaching our competition. We need to go directly to parents.” I wanted to hug him. He said it before I even could.


  • I had a meeting with an ad tech start-up that was looking to bring on a PR agency. They’d not received any coverage yet and were rolling out a big, new update to their product. That product was developed to be used by agency people - ad, digital, PR and branding - so they were looking for coverage in the marketing trades, such as Ad Age, Ad Week, Digiday and PR Week. As I heard more about the product and how they were selling it, I said, “As someone who’s in your target market, I can say that from my experience, agency people rarely read the trades. Instead of pursuing coverage with the hope that the right people read it, why don’t we go directly to our targets?” That thought hadn’t crossed their minds, but I could tell it interested them. I ended up winning that piece of business and put together a program that would reach agency folks directly. Within the first week of executing the program, we fully converted a large, global ad agency. Immediate results.

I tell these stories because they’re nice examples of misunderstanding the readership of publications.

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Audience targeting, segmentation and prioritization is more than doing a search for the trade publications of a certain industry. It’s having a strong, intimate knowledge of the actual people who could be purchasing a product or service. Media are very, very rarely the people a company should actually be targeting, but too often PR people look at them as the target, rather than a vehicle for reaching a target.

It’s kind of ironic that more PR people don’t grasp targeting customer audiences because many are very good at understanding media targeting. They know you can’t send blanket pitches to a long list of journalists. Pitches need to be personalized so that a journalist knows you follow them and understand their coverage interests. They take the time to really, really get to know journalists professionally and personally.

Why then, do PR people not apply this same type of knowledge to targeting customers?

If a blanket pitch sent to a journalist not covering your company’s industry ends up getting deleted, don’t they realize essentially the same thing happens to an article that appears in a publication that doesn’t actually reach their target audience? Just because Ad Week covers the advertising industry, doesn’t mean the advertising professionals who could buy your product or service read it. It sort of reminds me of the saying, “if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, if coverage appears in a publication, and your target audience doesn’t actually read it, does it really count as coverage? That's an extremely simplistic point, but the point is, target the reader, not the publication and not the journalist.

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Let’s go back to my statement from earlier - “I’m saying it’s become easy to rely on pitching as the basis of a PR program, and unfortunately, from time to time, the entire program.”

Think about that a bit.

Imagine you’re a PR person and an executive comes to you, asking for a PR plan to support an upcoming announcement. You compile a plan the correct way, not simply relying on media coverage to carry the announcement, but developing a plan that targets your audience.

Many executives would come back to you and say, “where’s the media plan? What’s the plan for coverage?”

You may not need press coverage for the announcement. There are now a number of ways to reach people directly without going through the media. But maybe it’s easier to go along with the executive and add in press targets. Maybe the plan has a budget associated and the addition of the media relations component requires you to cut out some of the other direct comms pieces. Soon the plan is diluted, but it’s a plan that will appease the executive, even if it doesn’t support the company reaching its broader goals.

I’ve seen this scenario happen. It’s easier to go along with an executive’s demands than it is to educate the executive.

But I have to ask a question. What’s more powerful for a company, getting hundreds of thousands of views of a press article or getting a large, global customer? That all depends on the company’s objectives, but I have a feeling that as much as press coverage feeds egos, an executive would appreciate the sales much more.

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PR people have long known that it’s hard to justify their value. In the past, the easiest way was pointing to press articles. We took on advertising metrics and touted circulation, subscribers or views to combat the ad numbers. That time has come and gone. We now have tools at our disposal that allow us to not just support sales, but actually drive sales. We just have to embrace these new methods.

We should be striving to be communications professionals now, not just stereotypical PR people. We’ve surpassed that stage of the profession. The industry lost its creativity and some of its business relevance when it allowed itself to become too reliant on media coverage. We don’t have to rely solely on media anymore. Media is still a valuable communications tactic, but it’s not what our jobs should revolve around. It’s just one piece of our job, one tool in our arsenal.

The industry needs to go beyond the definitions of PR that have become commonplace, beyond the PR stereotypes and perceived media reliance. We need to solve problems, meet business objectives and both support and drive sales. We have to embrace more communication vehicles and new communication vehicles. It’s time for us to move forward. To adapt, evolve and advance.

This post is syndicated from its original publishing on LinkedIn.