It’s no secret that COVID-19 changed the world. 2020 was a year of constant adaptation, from learning to work at home to navigating an onslaught of new health and safety recommendations.
While we were searching for answers, newsmakers were left with the task of telling and developing crucial stories in a media landscape saturated with pandemic news coverage.
What lessons can public relations professionals take away from this unprecedented year? More importantly, how can you ensure you are getting adequate news coverage when stakes are so high?
On April 15th, we hosted a panel discussion with The Canadian Press, Maclean’s, Brookline Public Relations, and Maverick Public Relations about ways PR pros can adapt to face these changes and succeed in 2021 and beyond.
Keep reading for some key takeaways you can use to improve your PR strategies. If you want to watch the full conversation, you can view it on-demand here.
PR in a Pandemic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the News Cycle
Sylvie Harton (Moderator): What is the appetite for non-pandemic stories like in newsrooms right now?
Joanna Smith (The Canadian Press): COVID has dominated the news cycle; it’s the biggest story. At the same time, we’ve been covering it like a breaking news story this whole time, and our reporters are looking for new stories to report on. Sometimes that means COVID-adjacent stories - how the pandemic has affected certain populations, for example - or stories about long-term effects. But there are also lots of stories around Canada and the world that need news coverage, and I look to reporters to bring stories to me that they are passionate about.
Shannon Proudfoot (Maclean's): We try to be quite thoughtful and deliberate about the mix of subject-matter and tone. News coverage ebbs and flows; last summer, for example, things felt very different, and there was more room in the agenda for other stories. Things are more acute now, but reporters are still people, and we see that appetite for other news in our pitch meetings. We are looking to the “after” - to the next chapter, in hopes that it is coming soon.
Sylvie: to the PR professionals - what has been your experience getting non-pandemic stories news coverage?
Lisa Libin (Brookline Public Relations): At the beginning of the pandemic, there was primarily an appetite for hard news very specific to COVID, and more recently we’ve had requests directly from reporters for other stories, including offshoots of COVID and stories about recovery and the economy. There have definitely been peaks and valleys, and overall we just have to be conscious of our tone and be respectful of the current environment around us.
Julie Rusciolelli (Maverick Public Relations): The short answer is that this isn’t business as usual, but business must go on. We didn’t push the pause button; we continue to pitch and tell stories and engage in conversation. The difference this year is that we are competing with hard news, and that news is COVID-19. We are pitching our clients’ stories against the backdrop of the pandemic, which means we have to be much more meaningful, relevant, and extremely timely. We really have to watch when and how we say it. The biggest challenge for us, and where we have been successful, has been newsjacking, or gorilla media relations. If there’s a story out there on COVID, how can we take advantage of that and get our clients news coverage in a thoughtful and meaningful way?
Sylvie: To our journalists - when there is little appetite for non-pandemic stories, how do you assess what should receive news coverage?
Joanna: I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s just a matter of who we have available. I have to make daily triages all the time; I have to be aware of who’s available and what they’re covering. Some things are a must-cover. When we assess newsworthiness, we’re asking “is there an actual hook?” Is this something that is happening now? Is it relevant to our clients? Does it follow up on something we’ve covered previously? The calculus can change on any given day, but these are the questions we’re asking.
Shannon: We tend to look a little more long-range, given our publication schedule, and it really does just depend on what’s in the mix and who’s available. We all know that newsrooms are smaller than they used to be, and this year has really just been a firehose of news. Every month since the beginning of 2020 has had a story in it that would have been the story of the year had the rest of the year not happened. It gobbles up a lot of bandwidth, so there are things that I may have been interested in that I can’t jump on because I don’t have the time, and nobody else has the time. The things that remain newsworthy at times like these are things that relate to something bigger. We can’t do a one-off on something that doesn’t relate to something broader. That doesn’t have to be COVID, but it needs to grab us in a way that seems relevant and important right now.
Sylvie: To Julie and Lisa, then, I’m curious, has this changed the way you approach and pitch the media?
Julie: I would say, first and foremost, our trade craft has not changed. The pandemic didn’t change what we do. Strong narrative development is the tenant of a great PR firm; that still remains. What has changed is being able to remain resilient and reactive to the world around you. We’ve become very cognizant of COVID, and we’ve done a lot more narrowcasting in our search for news coverage.
Lisa: It’s about relevancy. “Spray and pray” hasn’t worked for a long time. Good PR agencies really are about tailoring and targeting. It’s about the relevancy of the news, making sure that what we’re sharing with journalists makes sense for them and for their publication. However, we have changed how we’ve pitched. Traditional media isn’t the be-all-end-all. If the news cycle is quite busy and it's hard to get news coverage, are there other ways to get our information out? Content consumption has been at a peak throughout this pandemic. Are there ways we can work with our clients to put things out digitally, and can we get the same ROI for them in that way?
Sylvie: What really makes a bad pitch? Has this changed in the context of a pandemic?
Joanna: A bad pitch is one that is tone deaf and has no awareness of what the reporter actually does. A good pitch is one that is well-written and tailored to the particular beat that the reporter is working on. Sometimes an element of exclusivity will get our attention.
Sylvie: Are there things that PR professionals can add to their pitches that help you?
Joanna: We’re always looking for ways to illustrate our stories with real people, and this can be a challenge. A pitch that goes beyond a topic or idea and offers up people to interview can go a long way.
Shannon: I think that what makes a good or bad pitch in general hasn’t changed in the pandemic. I agree that the shotgun approach is NOT effective; it is a waste of everyone’s time. Similarly, I appreciate the attempt to tailor a story, but if it’s clearly been shoehorned into a reporter’s beat or contains a forced COVID element, that’s not good either. Don’t force the connection and the relevancy. We know what is interesting to our readers. If we’re not already interested in the subject, additional content won’t necessarily help. The underlying story has to be worth pursuing in order for any of that extra content to be worthwhile.
Sylvie: To the PR panelists - how do you make your story stand out, and has this changed in the pandemic?
Lisa: Again, I don’t think our strategy has changed. We’ve always had to have that relevance, and we’ve always had to be very targeted. If we see a journalist on a media list, we’ll look up their previous work to be sure we’re matching their beat. We’ll also look up the story we’re pitching to ensure we’re looking at it from a different angle. In terms of how it’s changed, the news is just very saturated right now. So, it’s about being strategic. If we’re going out with something, we have to make sure it’s important enough to overshadow what’s already out there or that it ties in and is relevant.
Julie: We’ve also developed working relationships with partners like Angus Reid, and we look to them with surveys to keep a finger on the pulse of Canada. We don’t want our stories to always come from the voice of a corporate brand. So we use this research to understand Canadians, and we use those stats to pitch stories about our brands so that the end product doesn’t feel like a news story but like a PSA. We’ve also utilized universal themes, looking at how we can tie in our brands to other, larger stories.
Lisa: The industry stats and surveys are great for creating credibility, especially when it’s a very branded press release. How can we help show what that story will look like? It’s also important to be short and sweet. If we can’t capture a journalist’s attention quickly, then we’re not doing our job properly.
Julie: The subject line is more critical than ever.
Sylvie: I also want to talk about technology. How are you all using online platforms to build stronger relationships and get your job done?
Joanna: Well beyond working from home instead of a buzzing newsroom, one of the biggest changes that has long lasting effects, is the move to fully virtual political press conferences. There are impacts for accountability there. When we have reporters there in person with a cabinet minister, if that person walks away, we can follow them and continue asking them questions until we receive an answer. When they appear virtually over Zoom, they can simply click off, and we can’t follow up. Everything is formalized and mitigated in that way, and it is a concern I have and something I hope does not remain after the pandemic. We also noticed that there are some things that cannot be done on virtual platforms. Our photographers had to continue working in the field, as did reporters working on sensitive stories. The upside to the remote work environment has been allowing us to have more “face-to-face” interaction with sources we might not otherwise have had. Now, conversations that may have previously happened on the telephone can happen on Zoom, and I’ve had reporters mention that they’ve seen things in subjects’ backgrounds that become part of the stories.
Sylvie: Do you think the future of journalism is hybrid?
Joanna: I do think there’s a function for hybrid. I see there being more remote work for both our journalists and members of parliament. I also see a great opportunity for conversations that would have been phone calls to then take place on Zoom or similar platforms.
Shannon: My staff and I have a Slack channel that we use every day. It’s a little stilted, so it’s not the same as being able to turn to the person next to you and ask a question. Similar to what Joanna said, it’s nice to have a video call where you would have had a phone call. However, if I’m working on a large feature story, I want to go visit someone in person and get a sense of their space, and I don’t think that Zoom will ever fully replace that. I think we will have a hybrid approach in terms of working from home and working from the office. The big thing that we’re missing now is that serendipitous moment of running into someone randomly and having a conversation. The accountability issue is important as well. Having reporters on phone lines where we can be contained and limited has been advantageous to politicians and hugely disadvantageous to reporters and the public. There are certain things we’d like to hang on to from this pandemic, and certain things we definitely shouldn’t.
Sylvie: On to the PR professionals. How have you used technology to survive and thrive in this pandemic?
Julie: It’s been forced upon us and we’ve had to learn to embrace it. The democratization of technology has really helped me. Where I might have previously taken 3 journalists to meet a client in person, I can now host 8 journalists without spending the client’s money. It’s worked well for us. We can connect people across the country.
Lisa: Technology has opened up the world in that there are no borders. We can now see far away clients “face to face” more frequently, and the same can be said for reporters. There are downsides, of course, including clients who might really need in-person interactions (such as those in the hospitality space). I think that hybrid will continue, and we’re media training our clients to be on Zoom and Skype, rather than just in-person interviews, which I think will be very important in the future.
Sylvie: Our last question comes in two parts. First, what have your teams done to stay agile and focused in the last year? And second, what words of advice would you like to leave our audience with?
Joanna: The takeaway for people listening is that journalists are humans too. This is a news story that they are not only covering on the same level that they would be covering a war, but they are also living it. Not only are they trying to cut through the noise, but you are trying to keep them on hours that make sense to them. And that’s something that I try to keep in mind as a manager of reporters. Being mindfully and intentionally compassionate and mindful of others’ humanity is very important.
Shannon: I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are not as productive as we were a year ago; we can’t be. My shop is fairly small and quite tight, and I have to say that the compassion and humanity among my colleagues has been incredible. There’s been a lot of flexibility in how and when we get our work done, giving people breathing space and acknowledging that everyone has a life. We know that everyone’s lives are part of them all the time, and I hope we hold on to that. We are people living through this, and the goal posts seem to keep moving. We’re also in the unique place of having to process this through an analytical lens. And my biggest takeaway right now is just that everything is extremely busy right now, and acknowledging that is important. It’s much harder to get a response to a press release or a pitch; it’s a bigger uphill battle because everyone is stretched so thin.
Julie: Trying to keep normal business protocols was critical to us, especially at the beginning. For me, having run teams for a number of decades, it was trying to do business as usual. For example, we have kept our weekly Monday morning meeting at 10 AM, but now, the first 10 minutes of that meeting might look different. We also have to realize that we’re all experiencing this differently. My problems are not the same as my employees’ problems. I think my biggest takeaway has been developing a sense of humanity. There’s more patience and compassion, and I’d like to see that continue.
Lisa: Your work is only as good as your team, and the team is so critical right now. We’ve been so lucky to have an amazing, resilient team in the past year. One important thing is that culture doesn’t leave just because you go online. While we can’t have the same conversations we’d have in-person, we have made efforts to adapt and see each other and have fun. I also think that humanity and empathy are important; everyone is going through something different, something hard, whatever it is. Being empathetic and understanding about schedules is also important.
It's clear that the last year has been filled with challenges for both journalists and PR pros. Securing news coverage in a pandemic-saturated world means that newsmakers must be more creative and thoughtful than ever as they pitch stories. Our speakers left us with thoughtful insights into ways they have navigated this new normal and what it might mean for the future of journalism.
Here are a few key takeaways:
- With a high-demand for pandemic news stories, it is critical that your story paint a bigger picture. One-off pieces with no big-picture tie-in will not receive much news coverage right now.
- Be thoughtful and targeted when you approach journalists. The "spray and pray" method does not work; researching the person you are pitching to does.
- Have empathy. "We're all in this together," and the stakes are high. Response times might be delayed, but it's critical to recognize the humanity in everyone experiencing this pandemic.
To view the full conversation and learn more about how to secure news coverage in a pandemic-saturated world, you can watch on-demand here.