Approaching Media Relations During the Coronavirus Pandemic

One of the few positives to emerge from the coronavirus outbreak is our celebration of “frontline” professionals. We have begun honoring everyday heroes who risk their bodies to keep the country running healthcare workers, delivery people, grocers and police officers, to name a few.

Although often forgotten, I’d add another profession to that list: journalists.

Many lose sight of the fact that, were it not for reporters, this terrible situation would be even more dire. Without reliable dispatches from on-the-ground journalists, the informational void would leave us with more uncertainty, more panic and, without doubt, greater disease spread. While the lucky among us can work from home, many reporters must venture into grocery stores, restaurants, even hospitals to bear witness to realities—the good, bad, ugly and altogether terrifying.

This risk is not without consequence. Several news outlets have acknowledged positive diagnoses among staffers. At least one of my reporter friends contracted the virus. Some infected journalists have even used their social media platforms to educate the public as they isolate, becoming the story they once covered.

As communications professionals, we rely on the media to help promote stories in which we’re invested. Our relationship with journalists is anchored in respect, and during this pandemic, it’s important to never lose sight of respect—respect for them not just as professionals, but as human beings. So, how should we approach media relations in the age of coronavirus?

To Pitch or Not to Pitch

What does this mean on a practical level? For now, we should think a little longer about pitching tactics. Before sending a note to a reporter, ask yourself a few basic questions:

  • Is the pitch relevant to what the reporter cares about right now? Many journalists have pivoted from their normal beats to report exclusively on COVID-19.
  • Is the pitch tone deaf to the current state of the world? Don’t write a pitch in a way that suggests your message is more important than a deadly pandemic.
  • Are you being opportunistic? If your pitch is based on a specious link to the coronavirus, the journalist will see through it—and might call you out.
  • Put simply, during these unpredictable times, can the pitch wait a month or two?

All that said, even with the current chaos, pitches are not in and of themselves insensitive or unwarranted. In this unprecedented situation, journalists crave good intel. So, don’t feel as though you must hibernate. Keep pitching. But find the win-win. And, keep these things in mind:

  • Sympathize with whatever the reporter might be going through personally. Be gracious and kind. Their worlds have been upended just like yours.
  • Make sure the pitch is factual. Especially now, reporters don’t want editorialized spins on your brand. Pack your pitch with relevant data, statistics and other forms of hard information.
  • Think big picture. Is the story solely about your brand? Or does it tap into a larger phenomenon? COVID-19 is causing reporters to think about major themes, so how does your brand jibe with something bigger than yourself?
  • Make it brief. For now, reporters don’t have time for lead paragraphs that read like novels. Get to the point quickly and express why your pitch is of importance.
  • Be honest with yourself. Read the pitch as if you were a journalist, and then ask, “Would this genuinely move a story line forward?” If not, go back to the drawing board.
The Broader Impact on Journalism

The pandemic isn’t just affecting reporters on an individual level; it’s wreaking havoc on the journalism industry as a whole. It’s no secret that local news, over the past few years, has been hit hard with advertising cuts, buyouts and layoffs. The coronavirus only accelerated this trend.

In just the past few weeks, media advertising has dropped between  20 and 30 percent; Buzzfeed slashed pay for the majority of its staffers; the newspaper giant Gannett announced massive furloughs and pay cuts; W magazine is entering a hiatus; San Diego magazine folded after 72 years; D magazine in Dallas laid off 15 staffers; alt-weekly staffs were gutted; and sports reporters suddenly found themselves with no sports to cover.

The sad irony is that these advertising-generated blows to the industry are occurring at a time when readers are flocking to news outlets for coronavirus updates and analysis. Many news sites have stepped up by dropping their paywalls. Consumers, it seems, crave accountable journalism more than ever. The news is grim, but still, we must follow it.

Only time will tell where we go from here. None of this is easy. But beyond the daily headlines, I encourage you to think about news consumption introspectively. The next time you’re reading about that doctor or cop or delivery woman on the front lines, think about the messenger, too and the risks they are taking so each of us can stay informed.

In the meantime, let’s keep pitching if it feels right. But do one more thing, too. Email a journalist you care about, just to say thanks.