Working with the Media in 2021 – Beyond COVID, Vaccines and Politics

Working with the media has been at the core of what we do since Jackson Spalding opened its doors 25 years ago. In that time, the world of journalism has changed significantly – newsrooms and lead times continue to shrink, and it can feel like new platforms and opportunities to connect are popping up every day. At the risk of showing my age, I giggle thinking about the hours I’d spend assembling actual three-ring binders full of scanned press clips for clients. But amid all of these changes in the world of journalism, media relations has always been more art than science. It comes down to strong relationships and storytelling.

Our media relations team recently attended PR News’ virtual “Media Relations Next Practices” conference and came away with key learnings around common challenges and emerging trends that are important for brands and organizations to note as they approach media in 2021.

2020 may be gone, but should not be forgotten.
While so many of us are eager for a fresh start after a monumentally challenging year, COVID-19 continues to have a lasting impact on how consumers engage with news. Journalists are adapting to the ways that people are consuming information at home, and brands need to be intentional about audience response in this context.

Throughout the massive wave of civil unrest around racial injustice and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we saw brands taking a stand and making new or renewed commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. If companies are not following through on manifesting those declarative statements, communicators should be preparing for response as citizens continue to hold brands accountable. If you need a starting point to assess your own organization, our  Racial Injustice and Social Inequalities Resource can help.

Reporter preferences vary, but relationships remain paramount.
Are desk side meetings dead? Should you email or pick up the phone to follow up on a story? What’s the best way to share assets? Depends who you ask. There are no hard and fast rules for how journalists prefer to receive pitches, but we are reminded of the importance of personal relationships, understanding a reporter’s beat and putting in the time to read or listen first and engage thoughtfully. If you don’t know what to pitch someone, it’s okay to ask (just as long as you’ve done your research first).

At Jackson Spalding, we’re finding that reporters are looking for credible sources and subject matter experts to weigh in on how brands and industries are being impacted during these  unprecedented times  (there, I said it). As turnover is high and journalists’ beats are frequently changing, a pitch idea may go through several twists and turns and never become a story – but providing a trusted source to comment on timely issues is invaluable.

Prove the value of PR with a defined media relations philosophy.
Demonstrating the true value of media impressions has always been one of the biggest challenges for the PR industry. And while there are myriad tools and technologies to measure and analyze media coverage, simply putting pen to paper and outlining your organizational philosophy around working with the media is critical to defining success. You should have a clear framework of the types of stories your brand wants to share, along with an understanding of how those messages support overall business objectives.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve helped brands hone their voices with thought leadership pieces from CEOs that address industry issues and then placing them in national media that they had not had access to before, like this CNN interview for our client L.L.Bean. Assigning beats to internal stakeholders allows them to immerse themselves in the subject and become true experts in the space. To ensure your brand’s spokesperson is able to confidently and clearly communicate that expertise in a virtual interview, which can be intimidating for even the most seasoned professional, be sure to review  these tips from our Coaching Team.

There were many lessons to be learned from 2020, and while we have no idea what 2021 has in store for us (*knocks on wood*), we’ll be leaning on our relationships – with our clients, our reporter friends and our teams – to ensure we have good stories to tell this year.

Kate Weaver is based in Los Angeles and co-leads our growing West Coast office. She draws on her PR roots to bring successful integrated marketing campaigns to life for clients like Mendocino Farms and Chick-fil-A.