Last week in Miami, the Association of Women in Sports Media (AWSM) had its annual convention, an event our firm attends every year. For PR professionals working in sports, there is no other venue quite like it and it provides the opportunity for PR people and sports journalists to network, learn from one another, and socialize off the clock.
As a PR professional, it’s such an opportunity to learn, build new relationships and get inside information on how to better work with media.
This year, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on the Challenges of Today’s PR Pro to address the issues that are increasingly prevalent in today’s media/PR landscape. While the nature of our roles is sometimes adversarial – and it seems to have gotten worse in recent years – I firmly believe it doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be. And when it really works and there is trust between the two sides, it can be an incredibly productive professional relationship, something which ultimately results in better stories. We might not always agree, but when we better understand each other’s needs, challenges and limitations, we can be mindful of them when working in our respective roles.
The goal of the presentation was not to have all the answers or attempt to generate solutions on the spot, but to facilitate a discussion and increase media awareness of the challenges we face day to day, not only in pitching clients for stories, but in managing media when clients are the story.
I. WHEN YOU'RE PITCHING STORIES
Anything outside big names/mainstream sports has become harder to pitch.
As an agency that does a lot of work with niche sports, lesser known sports organizations, start-ups and nonprofits, we love finding the “diamonds in the rough” – people, organizations and brands who have great stories to tell, are doing incredible things, or solving major problems – and no one knows, yet. Unfortunately, those “great” stories can often be the hardest to pitch. When it comes to sports desks, anything outside of the mainstream can be a very hard sell regardless of how attractive the story is.
We’ve had journalists tell us flat out that they can’t cover certain sports outside of an Olympic year, or do any stories about a sport like professional cycling outside of the Tour de France. We've had respected journalists tell us they’d really like to do the story about organization X’s work in Africa but there isn’t an “appetite” at the news organization for these types of stories. Of course, the reasons are many – newsrooms are understaffed and shrinking, there is pressure to drive web traffic, and on and on. It’s the reality we live in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us when clients are paying for results.
And so, we are persistent. We have to be.
Persistence is often an exercise in futility.
One thing we always try to communicate to media at the outset of a pitch is get back to us even if the answer is no. It is harder to go back to a client and say “I couldn’t get an answer” vs "outlet X passed." Feedback – positive or negative – is key. We don’t mind “no’s “ and if you give us the early no, we’ll stop contacting you. But we absolutely have to keep following up at least a couple of times to secure a definitive answer.
Email is a black hole.
Many journalists say they don’t want to be pitched over the phone. We’ve all seen the reporters' notes in the media database services that say “DO NOT CALL” or “ONLY ACCEPTS PITCHES VIA EMAIL.” Journalists also hate the "phone-call-after-email." But we have to call. I can’t tell you how many times we do make the follow-up phone call and the producer or editor will say "Oh, I didn’t get that email. It sounds interesting, we'd love to do that" – and boom, the story gets done.
Had we not made the frowned upon follow-up-call-after-unanswered-email, we wouldn’t have gotten the story and the news outlet would have missed out on something they were actually very interested in.
Yes doesn’t always mean yes.
A story isn’t a done deal until it runs. Too often, a journalist will give us a “yes,” only to go radio silent and fall off the face of the earth. Things happen, we know – stories get preempted for breaking news, there is a change in direction, the reporter gets pulled onto another story, etc. – but again, feedback is critical. When you tell a client that CNN, ESPN or another big national outlet said yes, especially smaller, lesser-known brands who have to fight for every bit of coverage they get, they are over the moon. And then the journalist goes MIA. He or she stops taking calls, emails go unanswered and the PR person is left holding the bag with the client.
II. CHALLENGES WHEN YOUR CLIENT IS THE STORY AKA MANAGING A CRISIS
When it comes to athletes or public figures, there is an inherent skepticism and ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality that shapes coverage.
In this day and age, it should be understood that while public figures do get into trouble, former girlfriends and ex-wives can be untruthful, families can be dysfunctional, and when it comes to high profile athletes who have a considerable amount of money, there can be a hidden financial motive for public accusations and allegations. All we ask is that the journalist considers both sides. We live in a world today where it is very easy for unscrupulous people to willfully ruin reputations and livelihoods with very few repercussions. Too often, when these truths do come to light, it’s too late to change the narrative or dial back the story because the damage has already been done.
If the first story is wrong, they’re all wrong.
One of the biggest issues in the age of digital media is that as soon as one outlet runs the story, everybody else picks it up and reports on what the other publication said. That means, if the first publication got it wrong, everybody has it wrong and in just a few hours, the person at the center of the controversy finds him or herself in an avalanche of untruths, incorrect facts and misleading characterizations that often lead to irreversible damage – all while there are few repercussions for the outlets who shared the inaccurate information.
Legal stories create greater room for error.
Stories of a legal nature require a lot more work for both PR professional and reporter. The PR pro needs to facilitate access to information and the journalist has a lot more homework to do in terms of reading briefings, motions, transcripts, etc. – information that is often hard to interpret without a guiding legal eye. When a reporter is on deadline and doesn’t have access to a legal expert, legal issues can be wildly mischaracterized. Other times, incorrect legal terminology is used, which can completely change the meaning of what happened. In these cases, PR pros must proactively work with the client's lawyers to not only get the information out there, but provide it in layman’s terms so there is no room for interpretation.
Some journalists don't view PR people as resources but as barriers to the story.
This can be a hard perception to work against. What we try to do as PR pros to counter that perception is to be as proactive with media as we can, let them know we’re a resource, that we’re hear to help, especially in navigating any legal issues. If we’re truly doing our jobs well, that proactive outreach is key, and can sometimes prevent the inaccurate headlines or that first wrong story from coming out.
These are just a few of the challenges discussed during the panel but being able to address these types of issues candidly in a room full of both communications professionals and journalists, is a rare and valuable opportunity. AWSM’s membership is made up of more than 600 men and women across the sports media industry, but the PR contingent is still very small, something I hope will change as more communications professionals realize the value of this organization and the platform it provides.
For more information about the Association of Women in Sports Media and to learn more about the Convention programming, please visit the website or connect on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: