Relationships Don’t Matter Most in Media Relations


It seems to me there are a lot of well meaning people singing the same chorus around the blog-o-sphere on the topic of media relations. Here’s the gist:

“PR people have to spend time building relationships with the people they pitch or will pitch – even if they don’t pitch them for months down the road. It’s all about relationships.”

That’s hogwash and I’ll tell you why.

Building relationships doesn’t scale for many PR folks on the agency side. Many PR pros work on multiple clients spanning vastly different industries. We target our media outreach to different beat reporters at different types of publications within different geographies. We’re pitching far too many reporters to develop meaningful relationships with each of them. It’s humanly impossible.

Lots of PR folks on the agency side work on project-based clients. That means the new tourism client he’s pitching right now to travel editors and publications won’t be around in six months. Is he supposed to keep chatting with the 200 reporters he just pitched for the past few months, if though he may never get another client in the travel industry?

Building relationships before having to pitch reporters doesn’t work for him either. How is he supposed to build relationships ahead of time with fashion and family reporters for the children’s clothing client he’ll get next year that he doesn’t even know about yet?

So what does matter most? Interesting, well-crafted pitches that are relevant to the reporter’s beat and her readers are what reign supreme. I’ve single-handedly landed a couple thousand stories for my clients in the last few years and the vast majority of the reporters I worked with didn’t know me from Adam the first time they got a phone call or an email from me. Create great pitches, make sure they’re relevant by reading the reporter’s last five articles and then share your news.

Don’t get me wrong. Relationships are important. You should pursue them when valuable and possible. But they do NOT matter most. That’s easy for people at niche agencies focusing on one industry and pitching the same reporters over and over to forget. It’s also easy for social media types to forget that the vast majority of reporters are NOT on Twitter and that even those who are may not want PR people engaging them there.

P.S. Thanks to Todd Defren for writing recently on blogger relations. He asked an interesting question on that post and the comment I left on it gave me the idea for this post.

UPDATE: If you’re one of the few people who have misread this post and think I’m saying that relationships don’t matter at all, then please read this for some clarification.

*Image by Mike Baird.

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39 responses to “Relationships Don’t Matter Most in Media Relations

  1. Dead-on. I am honored to have inspired it!

  2. Interesting take, and I can’t say that I completely disagree. I think it depends upon what type of PR you practice. Certainly corporate PR folks need to have relationships with a core group of reporters, since that core group won’t change as much as with agency folks like you and me. However, whether you’re in corporate PR or agency PR, there is an issue with these “personal relationships” that you didn’t mention: Due to cutbacks in the traditional media, reporters just don’t have the time or inclination to actually build those relationships anymore.

    I heard a talk yesterday by the exec. editor of my local newspaper. He said reporters don’t usually take pitches from reporters they don’t know, and that PR people should make the time to come down to meet reporters face-to-face before pitching. It took all of my willpower not to stand up and yell “BS!” Find me a newspaper reporter that has that kind of time these days, and I’ll be happy to meet with him or her 🙂

    Sadly, the days of the deskside sitdown are just about over.

  3. This is a great thought provoking post, David. There are a lot of people out there touting relationship building, but I think that you’re right that it should be *a* tool, not *the* tool.

    I’m wondering since you’ve pointed out what doesn’t matter most, are you going to follow up with what you believe does matter most?

  4. David,

    I disagree with the blanket statement that relationships don’t matter. You point out at the end of your post, “Relationships are important. You should pursue them when valuable and possible.”

    That’s the key. Just like you consider who your audience is when doing anything in public relations, you also need to consider your audience in media relations.

    You say you’ve had more success with well-crafted pitches. In my career, I’ve had much more success because of relationships with reporters and editors.

    So, once again, there’s no one right answer. Go figure! 🙂

  5. I completely agree! Creativity and research on the reporter’s beat and recent articles trump relationships. It’s great to be “friendly” with reporters, but they will appreciate you more if you are smart and don’t waste their time.

  6. I couldn’t disagree more. Relationships are the foundation for media relations. While, yes, you need to have a well-crafted and targeted pitch, you still need to have the “relations” part of PR.

    I have worked at several agencies, pitching many reporters for many clients in various fields. Know what? Those reporters that I’ve built a solid relationship with will always take my call. A step further, they also trust my judgment that I am not wasting their time, so they also talk with and then subsequently write about my client.

    After you make the initial contact, as a PR professional, you have a great opportunity to create a long-lasting relationship.

    You’re statement, “We’re pitching far too many reporters to develop meaningful relationships with each of them,” is one of the reasons why journalists hate PR folk. Don’t pitch far too many reporters. Pitch relevant, targeted ones. Why wouldn’t you build a relationship with a reporter who you know you can go back to when your boss, who by the way has told you that you need to get more hits….not quality hits, but more hits.

    Our role in media relations is to help get our client ink. And yes, these days, it seems that agencies are putting pressure on its PR folk to spam journalists, but that’s no excuse for not building relationships. When you go from agency to agency, (and if you haven’t, you will) it’s nice to know that you have established relationships in various fields for different clients.

  7. David – While I agree with the premise of your post, I feel that it shouldn’t preclude you from still making an effort to cultivate relationships. There is no down side to having them. The benefits may manifest themselves in ways unforseen, but they will open doors eventually that would not have been open otherwise.

    What I’m trying to say is, a hybrid approach is probably the best way to go. Focus on relationships but don’t take it to the extreme.


  8. I completely agree-how ARE you supposed to dev. rels. with reporters you may only come in to contact with a few times? Thanks for settling the unsettling advice I’ve heard one time too many….

  9. Agreed! We all can say that we have fantastic relationships with many reporters, but unless we have good stories to tell that are relevant to their audiences, those relationships won’t get us anything more than a few drinks at the bar. Granted, sometimes knowing journalists can enable us to have conversations that otherwise might not happen, but reporters have a job to do, and unless we can help them do it well, they’re not out to do us any favors.

    Another thing to remember is that the number of reporters who cover one beat is dwindling and it is harder than ever to develop meaningful relationships because of the changes going on in the industry.

    You want to be a reporter’s friend? Research his previous coverage and pitch him a story that will make him look good when he takes it to his editors. Give him access to leadership. Give him data and information on trends in the industry. Don’t spin (can you believe people still use that word in this business?). And don’t pitch his competition at the same time. You don’t need a relationship to do that.

  10. I would argue that what you are explaining is what is wrong with the agency world, not that relationships don’t matter.

    I’ve worked my whole career as a PR rep for small companies and never in an agency. And I’ve found relationships ARE important because when you can demonstrate you are familiar with a reporter’s writing and publication they are not only more likely to take your pitches seriously, but they will come to you for story ideas or a quote or whatever.

    However, it’s tough because reporters are receiving so many pitches (and many bad ones) that it becomes hard to make the initial contact through the noise, but once they know you are, and if you’re consistently providing good pitches the relationship definitely matters.

  11. Great ideas and great relationships aren’t mutually exclusive but when they come together, it can be even more powerful.

    There are a lot of assumptions here too. Acengy v. organizational PR is one. National v. local is another.

    For us PRs not in agency, relationships can be long-term and highly beneficial. And for local press, great relationships are key.

    That said, I think focusing on the quality of ideas is an important message.

    For me though, it’s definitely both.

  12. Josh – I don’t disagree with you. I think you misread things, my friend. I didn’t say relationships don’t matter. I said they don’t matter MOST.

    “After you make the initial contact, as a PR professional, you have a great opportunity to create a long-lasting relationship.”

    I completely agree with that. What I am saying is that we need to recognize that you don’t have to work your ass off to become drinking buddies with a reporter before pitching them. And, you don’t have to become drinking buddies with them after a pitch.

    I disagree with you on this:

    “You’re statement, “We’re pitching far too many reporters to develop meaningful relationships with each of them,” is one of the reasons why journalists hate PR folk.”

    Pitching a lot of reporters is NOT why reporters hate PR folks. They hate PR folks who spam them with non-relevant pitches and non-news pitches. There is a significant difference between those two. If my pitch – with tweaks here and there – is relevant for 100 reporters, then I’m pitching 100 reporters. If you’re not doing that, then you’re missing major opportunities for your client.

    To be clear, relationships are important. But they do not sit at the top of the media relations tool kit.

  13. I’d say focus on the message but be open to relationships. As a reporter, I returned to the (few) sources with whom I developed the strongest rapport (often apparent right from the first interview). Great things can come from a creative synergy and I think quality is usually worth the cost in quantity.

  14. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    I agree with you about what is MOST important aspect of MR – the brevity and relevancy of your pitch. Regardless of your relationships, an off-beat pitch doesn’t go very far and in fact, hinders any relationship you may have already established. Based on your conclusion you certainly realize the importance of relationships.

    I will say that even given the multi-tasking of agency work (i.e., multiple beats and projects) I do want to stress the value & importance of having an internal champion within your core outlets, regardless of beat. Such champions will gladly refer you to the appropriate contacts giving you an inside track vs. an outside approach. This is particularly the case with many of the national media.

    Again, great point about the importance of the targeted (and brief) pitch, but don’t overlook the importance of gaining at least one internal champion within your key media outlets.

  15. Ken – I couldn’t agree more. A hybrid approach is ideal in my book and what I’ve always worked at achieving.

  16. I agree. I disagree. I think the problem with saying it’s one way or the other is that it’s not how things work. Life and work is gray, not black or white.

    Most of us work hard at establishing relationships with the media. It’s definitely important. And some of us have clients in different industries which forces us to reach out to editors and journalists we don’t know. When that happens we have to make sure our pitch is spot on. But make no mistake – that new person we’re pitching is someone we want to know better.

    That being said, if you do your job correctly, it shouldn’t matter what your relationship with the media outlet is at the time.

  17. Kelly – I’d respectfully argue that when done right (see Ken’s hybrid suggestion) this isn’t what’s wrong with agencies, but what’s right about them.

    The ability to adapt and bring great ideas to the table transcends relationships. Your relationships don’t buy you squat if you can’t find those great nuggets within a client that gives it a story to tell.

    That’s the point. Relationships are great. In some cases they are crucial – corporate side, niche trade publications, etc. – but they aren’t the most important thing in media relations from where I sit.

  18. David:
    Great post! Should inspire us to rediscover the art of finely crafted pitches. While relationships can help a reporter easily recognize the sender, they don’t guarantee a story. A great pitch should always be the centerpiece. Everything else is just “gravy.”

  19. Pitching 100 reporters who may find your client relevant may not be helpful to your client. I have an M&A client. While there are thousands of reporters nationwide who would find their story relevant, pitching all of them or even getting articles in all the places, is not relevant for my client. Being in the Seattle Times is not as relevant as being in the NY Post. So while I won’t pitch a relevant story to the PI, I’ll reach out to my journalist-buddy, who I’ve built a solid relationship with over the years, to meet with my client.

  20. Josh – you’ve made my point for me. Being in the Seattle Times is not as relevant as being in the NY Post in your example. So you focus on the NY Post. That’s what you’re supposed to do, so good job.

    M&A is niche, though. What I’m saying is that a lot of people touting relationships forget that a multitude of PR folks are pitching general business or consumer news that is relevant to A LOT of reporters and their audiences.

  21. Completely agree. analyzing the media and writer’s patterns and providing something that provides value much more important. Yet execs still seduced when agencies talk “our relationships.”

  22. David, I’m really glad that you brought up this topic. It has inspired some much needed debate about a topic that I do not think is as well discussed on the agency side as it is on the media side.

    I’m not going to weigh in with my opinion because I think both there have been many good points that have been made throughout the discussion. I do think that conversations like this are helpful because I know that often clients and therefore the agencies feel the itch to create exceedingly long media lists, especially when including online sources. This, I have found creates and inevitable tension between the relationship building or intensive targeting that I think as professionals pitching we all strive for and the maximizing of outreach that our clients or bosses sometimes request.

  23. I must admit your post made me feel sad. I no longer do hands on PR but I did for a good few years and still have great relationships with a lot of the press I worked with and I didn’t work in a niche agency or for niche clients.

    You are right in that if you have a great story and can pitch well then you’ll get coverage, most of the time. However relationships can help you get coverage when your story is not that great. That said, being a great PR is not just about getting your client in the press, sometimes its about keeping them out of it or making sure that you get a heads up on potential trouble heading your way as quickly as possible.

    Relationships can help bring in business through journalist recommendations. I also know several people who landed jobs after journalists were asked about who was the best PR in the sector, not something they could do to someone who they’ve never spoken to more than once or only about client matters.

    Obviously the set up in which I’ve worked has differed from yours, I’ve rarely worked on project clients or clients from a wide range of industries, mine have, for the main, been in the enterprise and business technology area, which I don’t think counts as niche.

  24. Also, I apologize for the typos. Got pulled into a project before I had time to proofread! (Committing one PR sin that really personally bugs me)

  25. Bravo! I definitely agree with your perspective and have been waiting for someone to stand up and say it. My goal as a PR person is to build relationships between the editorial community and my CLIENT. If the editors/reporters start calling my clients directly for quotes and resources, I feel like I have done my job successfully.

  26. I definitely agree and think that many of the commenters took your headline out of context. Relationships are important, but not so much that developing them takes priority over creating solid deliverables.

    I often wonder how some PR pros actually get work done when they’re tweeting every 5 minutes and placing such importance on developing relationships through social media.

  27. Annie – you hit the nail on the head!!

  28. The other downfall of relying solely on relationships with reporters is the high turnover. I work almost exclusively with local media and since we’re a small market, our reporters move on to bigger markets fairly quickly. So, in addition to well-crafted pitches, I also work on relationships with the technical side of the station/paper as well (producers, assignment editors, etc.) or it’s all a moot point.

  29. David, I think you are absolutely correct. I am successful with most “pitches” because I send real, authentic e-mails, and I engage reporters on the telephone genuinely. I am a real person and reporters are real people, and I intend to always treat them as such. Putting people on pedestals accomplishes nothing. It’s authentic, sincere communication that gets you everywhere.

  30. Oh… my.. god. As a solo consultant, I am near tears of joy to read this. Almost every time I meet a new prospective client, one of the first questions is “Do you KNOW these reporters?”

    With many projects in similar industries that last a short time, there’s some overlap on the bloggers and reporters I talk to, but there are many more out there I’ll never talk to unless a client arises that is a good fit.

    I always tell prospects and clients the hard part is keeping up with who’s covering what. But what’s most important: have the right story for the right reporter/blogger/outlet.


  31. Shelley Mullins

    Jen, I, too am a solo consultant, with clients in the high tech industry here in Canada. There is no way for me to develop ‘friendships’ with journalists in the U.S. covering software, semiconductors, BI, biotech etc.

    A good story is a good story, and a good journalist worth her or his salt will appreciate a targeted, well-written pitch. Period.

    We need to rise above the idea of PR being about smoozing and ‘who you know’ and become a profession that values ‘what we know’ instead.

  32. Great post and conversation as usual, David. For me, it’s a chicken or the egg type scenario. Which came first – the great pitch or the relationship? I’ve experienced good results with both. A great pitch to a reporter I don’t know, if it’s well-timed and right on target, is the start of a beautiful friendship in many cases. Likewise, knowing a reporter and having that relationship can help me *craft* that great pitch and ensure that it’s on target.

    So, just to be difficult, I’m going to say they’re equally as important as each other.

  33. Thank you for the helpful insight, David. As a student studying public relations and marketing, I often hear professors lecture about the importance of networking and building relationships with professionals in your industry. While I understand that who I know is important, I agree that what I know–that is, good, creative writing–will help me much more in the world of PR.

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  36. It certainly would vary according to one’s PR position but as you’re focusing on the agency side, agree with Lara, it’s a balance.

    Some longer term client projects will benefit form relationships and regular contact. But, it’s always been my take that regardless of relationship, if you deliver a timely, relevant, creative pitch and prove yourself as a reliable resource to the reporter, mission accomplished. They may or may not remember you (a simple thanks and brief follow up immediately after a story publishes can go a long way) next time around but if you’re a skilled PR pro, you’ll stand out in your pitch anyhow and likely trigger their memory.

  37. Scott – I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for sharing!

    Based on a few comments here and a couple blog posts, a few folks either misread me or didn’t actually read the post. To make sure my point was clear…

    I was saying that it isn’t the MOST important thing in media relations. Great story ideas shared with relevant journalists is what’s most important. One could argue that they’re equal, as Scott and Lara did. I could see that. But relationships don’t trump quality story ideas and resourcefulness. In fact, you can’t build a relationship without providing those two things first.

    The reason I wrote the post is that I’ve seen lots of chatter lately – usually from social media types or tech PR folks – who elevate relationships above all. They say you must build a relationship with a reporter or blogger before pitching them. To that, I say hogwash.

    Secondly, they claim that good PR people develop relationships with EVERY person they pitch on an ongoing basis. That’s what I said is impossible for many agency folks. EVERY is an unattainable goal. Yes, you should maintain relationships with as many as possible, but you don’t have to become drinking buddies with all 3,000 reporters you’ve pitched in your ten years to be successful at media relations.

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