The most important media relations skill for 2019? Empathy

by | Dec 14, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

Even before they were being branded enemies of the people and being mailed pipe bombs, these were tough times for members of the media.

Long-term business-model challenges have continued to shrink newsrooms and resources, while the divisive political environment has eroded the public’s trust in media to an all-time low. Neither of these are good developments for us PR professionals. Because our value is ultimately linked to the third-party credibility of earned media, our industry is at its healthiest when the media is, too.

Which is why empathy is now one of the most important media relations skills we need

At times like these, our industry can learn a lot from the old saying, “before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”? Within Olson Engage (and now ICF Next), we’re fond of saying that the best marketers think like people, not like marketers.

The best media relations people are no different. By thinking like reporters, we’re able to anticipate their needs and understand their process and pain points. Do they like finished video or B-Roll? Do they typically spend days reporting out stories or are they asked to churn out four to five pieces a day? How have past stories they’ve posted on a given topic performed on social media?

Time PR people spend thinking about these questions usually makes life easier for reporters—and getting calls returned easier for us.

A client-like relationship

As PR people, clients pay our bills and rightfully command our ultimate loyalty.

But a big part of what they pay for is our relationships with and credibility among key media members. And, in that sense, it’s good to think of journalists as a type of client, one that we pay back with respect, open ears and a deep understanding of their needs.

Treating reporters with client-like respect doesn’t mean we have to give them everything they want. There will always be times when our interests diverge. What they’re entitled to from us is the same thing we have every right to expect from them: good-faith professionalism and honesty.

In that spirit, it’s critical that we educate paying clients about journalists’ jobs, the pressures they’re facing, and the differences between press coverage you earn and advertising you control.

Unlike the latter, the former won’t always be 100% positive and won’t always include every priority message. Journalists have only one real obligation, and that’s to the truth.

I’ve seen companies big enough to know better attempt to put journalists on a “do not pitch” list as a consequence of reporting the truth too plainly. Not surprisingly, the reporter continued to cover the company, and all the ban did was cost the company space in their stories.

It turns out that having respect for journalism often means being treated better by it.

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Joe Edelson
Joe Edelson is a vice president at ICF Next.

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