In My Opinion: Samantha McKay-Challen: Content is no longer ‘King’

IS it just me, or is it far more difficult to secure media coverage for PR clients these days?

I remember in the dim and distant past – okay, the 1990s – when I was a newspaper journalist, I had regular chats with dozens of PR people who had interesting stories to tell.

They sometimes used to buy me lunch and even (whisper it) the odd glass of wine.

Developing positive working relationships was all the rage and, the more you talked to and met up with people, the more you found out.

I was never ‘off duty’ as working relationships often developed into friendships, which garnered even more stories.

Fast forward almost 20 years and it seems as if we are all so busy, so crushed under our weight of responsibility and so deluged by the sheer volume of information, that we no longer have time for such indulgent interaction – and isn’t that sad?

As methods of communication shift and adapt to our slavishly 24/7 news agenda, I think we’re in danger of drowning in an avalanche of information, much of which isn’t particularly useful or even relevant to our daily lives. Content is no longer ‘king’.

In the face of this information overload, journalists are struggling to weed out the real stories and PR managers are ‘banging their heads against the same old wall': how to secure media coverage in increasingly limited space, competing against growing numbers of PR agencies and bloggers, and using ever-changing communications tools while retaining our sanity?

And because we now rarely have the time to meet up with anyone from outside our working environment, it can feel as if we are in this alone.

I’m not advocating a return to boozy lunches (although they’re fun) but I do – in my current capacity as a freelance PR consultant – have a few tips for PR managers to help both them and journalists alike.

For PR managers: if you know a media release isn’t sufficiently newsworthy to secure media coverage, tell your client.

Frankly you’re being paid for your good news sense, among other things, and if you can come up with some creative ideas on how to make the story more newsworthy, all is not lost.

In the past, I’ve been told to send out a certain number of news releases each month in order to hit ‘targets’ but I’ve since realised this is nonsense and risks undermining the relationships you have worked so hard to build with journalists.

Remember that your reputation as a source of interesting and reliable stories is just as important as securing your client coverage so, if it’s not a good story, save the journalists’ time (and avoid testing their patience) and don’t send it out. Journalists are less likely to read your next news release if what they saw from you previously was disappointing. And do you really want your name associated with what you know is a feeble story?

Secondly, be more creative, both with stories and your sell-in technique. Bear in mind that journalists receive hundreds of news releases each day so do everything you can to make yours stand out from the crowd. Keep an eye on news coverage so that you can tie your client in with existing stories (for example, providing expert comment) or sell-in a feature idea on the back of news editorial. Check online as some media publish their forward features lists so you can plan your news releases accordingly. Speak to journalists about what they have coming up, story-wise, in your clients’ sectors that you may be able to get involved with. Keep it relevant and concise. And never call them asking if they have received your release. It infuriates them.

The main point is to be more selective in everything you do, from choosing which story to promote and dealing with the media, to which newsletters and blogs you sign up to.

Avoid all the rubbish out there and hone in on your key areas of interest and expertise.

Follow those people or businesses you think promote themselves well; ask yourself why they are so good and emulate this.

If a newsletter bores you, don’t delete it each week but take the time to unsubscribe from it.

Be ruthless in what you spend your time on. Gradually, you will be able to see past the plethora of irrelevant information and, who knows, as a result you may even have time to do things the old-fashioned way – pick up the phone and invite a journalist to the pub after work.

They may just accept.

Samantha McKay-Challen is a freelance PR consultant and copywriter based in Edinburgh. She was a journalist for several years on newspapers in Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln.