Listening in lockdown: how the crisis helped refocus the journalist-PR relationship

By Amy Story, Account Manager, Technology.

As PR professionals, our relationship with the British media is of course a fundamental part of our work, which, like so many aspects of our lives, has been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With increased digitalisation, staff cuts at many outlets, and publications’ reliance on advertising revenue, we have had to quickly adapt the way we work to keep up with the changing media landscape. We are well versed in deciphering the nuances of different publications and writers’ pitching preferences. How will the journalist-PR relationship evolve?


Lockdown media audits

At the end of March, most comms plans that had been in place were outdated and in need of re-evaluating to be more attuned to the crisis. It was an incredibly important time as businesses scrutinised every aspect of their PR activity to ensure they didn’t come across as tone-deaf or insensitive.

As we worked with our clients to decide on new and relevant story angles, I decided to call up a handful of national tech journalists to try and get an understanding of what they were covering (spoiler alert: COVID!), the angles they were looking for and what stories they were already tired of receiving. I assumed I’d be swiftly dismissed given the increase in work pressure of those journalists, but in fact those I spoke to were surprisingly happy to spend a few minutes of their time talking to me about the recent changes to their work life.

This led to the development of a weekly media audit that I work on alongside my FHF tech practice colleagues Shivaani Mistry and Katya Beadsworth. This is shared with our global tech team colleagues and our clients, providing a weekly snapshot of the tech media landscape and the impact of COVID’s disruption. It has been a great way of sharing insights and intel amongst our tech PR experts, and helping our clients stay up to speed with the ever-changing media agenda.

We’ve tracked furloughs, journalists changing beats, COVID trends and the rate at which publications started to pivot away from solely covering the pandemic. We found that trade titles diversified their coverage more quickly – presumably because more specialist titles have less mileage on COVID than the nationals.


Lessons for comms professionals

This period made me wonder how we could work together with the media to respond to their needs even more so than we already do – and what new practices and insight we can take with us into post-lockdown life – to go the extra mile to understand the nuances of their requirements amidst such global upheaval.

Having familiar relationships with journalists is of course the holy grail for comms professionals, but the reality is that staff churn at media outlets is frequent and journalists are increasingly changing roles or going freelance. As a result, it’s important to act fast and with accuracy – helping to pique a journalist’s interest when they have even more on their plate than usual. It’s also worth bearing in mind that reporters may be covering a broader or totally different remit to make up for reduced headcounts during lockdown.

We found that many of the journalists we work frequently with across both trades and national titles were furloughed and many titles have faced huge job cuts and loss of revenue due to companies reducing their spend on advertising and events. As well as journalists having to cover for colleagues who may be unwell or furloughed, they also had to adapt to capitalise on the areas of tech most relevant to the crisis, such as healthcare and cybersecurity.

We’re all under pressure to get results for our clients so sometimes it’s easy to forget that the best route to success is understanding the detail of what journalists are asking for, talking about on social media and, crucially, already writing about.


Lessons for businesses

The pandemic has taught us to go back to the fundamentals in many areas of comms, including media relations. Leaders and businesses will be judged by how they have chosen to behave during lockdown, not only by their target audiences but by the media – which our own Future of the Workplace research shows to be true. Journalists are more attuned than ever to anything self-serving and are looking for stories that have tangible outcomes and refer to the bigger picture.

Here are some key insights for businesses from our conversations with journalists:

  • Have tangible outputs, proof-points and case studies – vague future-gazing is not enough
  • Aim for simplicity as much as possible – with journalists even more stretched than normal it is the short, sharp pitches that are most likely to make the cut
  • Make stories people-led, be specific, add value and provide detail
  • Be prepared to talk about COVID, regardless of your story – it’s clear this will be part of the conversation for some time
  • More than ever, it is vital that content is backed up by statistics and expert opinion – the media is particularly conscious of fake news amidst the crisis
  • Virtual content is on the rise – including events, podcasts and video interviews. Adapt to these changing mediums and always try to provide high-quality visuals with your story

While there now seems to be a little light at the end of the tunnel, we are likely to be living in the legacy of the pandemic for a long while to come. I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling to see the positives to come out of this period – but perhaps one could be that PRs, brands and journalists get a little better at understanding each other’s needs.

In the meantime, our media audits will continue and hopefully, the spirit of sharing, listening and adapting, that is a key part of the journalist-PR relationship, will too.