A tweet crossed my newsfeed recently. It was an important insight disguised behind well-crafted snark. New York Times reporter Katie Rosman wondered aloud who in the world would pitch her for a deskside briefing to promote bags and accessories during the COVID-19 crisis. In full disclosure, I worked with Katie and was featured in a story of hers 10 years ago on a minor Jewish holiday.
Immediately, her followers tweeted lots of support and expressed great disdain for the public relations professional who approached her.
Here are my three takeaways inspired by this tweet:
To the presumably younger PR team member who was asked to pitch this news:
Hang in there. It gets better. Take this experience and learn from it. Learn that reporters are human. Learn that they are subject to the same challenges as everyone else. Learn that bosses are human and that sometimes you are asked to do a thankless task for a client — and it sucks — but you try anyway.
All logic says a reporter would be in no position to write this piece at this time — but is that a reason to pass? Maybe, but it would be a reason to pause and understand why you were pitching the piece. At FCP, I would have expected an employee of mine first to push back and ask what success could look like in making this pitch at this time. We would have a conversation and ideally brainstorm a creative way to break through the noise. Then, if we did go ahead, we would relish this kind of candid feedback and learn for future pitches.
Thinking back to lessons from previous crises, there are a few key items to remember. Reporters do want to hear from you — if you can offer them what they need. News is inherently time-bound and unique. Are you able to give the reporter something he or she doesn’t have yet?
In addition, during the H1N1 crisis, we worked with clients that used social media, for the first time, to communicate in real-time and saw where their networks were deficient. Today, we take these online audiences for granted, but we shouldn’t. It is incumbent on us as communicators to curate our audiences for maximum impact.
To the presumably more experienced PR boss who sent a staffer on this mission:
I would ask you to ponder the axiom that you should never ask a team member to do something that you wouldn’t personally do. Would you send that email or make that call to a reporter to pitch a handbag story right now? If yes, how would you do it? How would you utilize your years of expertise?
If you can’t answer these questions, then you should not be asking a team member to do it. You also, as a leader, probably want to be having a candid conversation with your client about reasonable expectations during a public health emergency.
During a national or global crisis, the news will function like blazing fire, and new facts are like fuel and oxygen that feed it.
If your client or organization cannot offer a reporter new facts, angles or anecdotes to feed the fire, then perhaps you should either leave the reporter alone or go back to the creative drawing board. Even if your target reporter is at a specialty or niche publication, it is not reasonable to ask a reporter to divert herself away from a priority and emergency to cover news that can wait, unless it directly relates to the news of the day.
Either way, you owe it to your staff members to put them in a position to succeed and thrive. Asking them to jump off a cliff for no reason can only lead to dissatisfaction and an erosion of confidence in your leadership.
To the reporters and journalists being pitched during a crisis:
I’d like to thank Katie for calling this question out publicly. PR practitioners are not perfect. We are subject to various client pressures and expectations. When we do our job well, ideally we help make you more effective at yours. When we do our job poorly, we deserve to be called out.
As you think about how to call attention to your important work during the difficult months ahead, be sure to challenge your internal team or external PR firm to think through how your work can add to the global conversation in a unique and powerful way. If it can’t, then consider using other tools like blogs, videos and social media and waiting until the time is ripe to reapproach news outlets.