Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why Has It Gotten Harder to Reach Reporters & Four Questions about Working with Reporters in An Age of News Distraction

I've been noticing that it's been harder to reach reporters live, on the phone. My suspicion has been that a lot of people are being distracted by news from Washington, DC. and yet I've also been concerned that I'm grasping at straws and that the problem lies elsewhere (such as possibly poorly written pitch letters that are too long or poorly delivered pitches delivered on voicemail that go on too long).

Mostly I've been trying to figure this out to improve what we're doing on behalf of clients.

I've checked with other colleagues outside my firm to get a sense of what they're seeing. Checking with people working with different clients across a range of industries.

They've been reporting the same sort of things. It's harder to reach reporters, more difficult to get them interested.

The thing is: all the people I checked with are PR professionals. They've been in the business for decades, have strong relationships with the media, and know how to tell a story and how to pitch. They're seeing the same thing.

Here's how I know I'm at least partially right that the news from DC is sucking up the oxygen and attention of reporters.

I tried calling an education reporter at a Florida newspaper for a story about a local EdTech client. Couldn't reach her live -- and I tried several times without leaving a message (because, after leaving a message, I can't call back for a couple of days).

What's going on?

When I checked her Twitter feed, I found confirmation of my theory.

Of her last 10 tweets and retweets, going back to May 13, one was a retweet about a compelling story in her paper, one was about an education reform bill being considered in the FL. legislature (so very work related), one was about a story in the Atlantic (about slavery) -- and the other seven were about DC news. Of the seven tweets today, only one (the Atlantic story) was not about the swirl of news coming from DC.

Keep in mind, I am not criticizing her or any other reporter about this -- I find many PR people I know to be equally concerned, preoccupied and distracted -- but none of today's tweets/retweets dealt with her beat.

I also checked out a Culture Desk reporter at the New York Times, and he posted 11 times today. Of those, one was about cultural news, one about Star Wars, and one about a boycott of ABC for cancelling Last Man Standing -- so those three are work related for that reporter. But the rest? All about the news from DC.

I checked out the tweets of a consumer tech reporter, and of his 19 tweets today, only one was about his beat area (about the latest trend about fidget spinner, one was in response to something else entirely, one about Trump and the economy, and the rest about the news from DC.

I also checked the Wall St. Journal investing columnist whose tweet about the economy was retweeted by the tech columnist. His nearly 30 tweets/retweets covered a broader range of topics: most were about investing and the economy, some not at all related to politics or possibly his beat area (manuscripts of Emily Dickinson; police spying on those texting and driving) -- but even he wrote about the latest presidential news.

So that's a total of four reporters, an admittedly small and random sampling. Two of them are reporters I've pitched, two are not. The vast majority of their tweets today -- I didn't have time to do more thorough sifting of tweets -- were about the political storm in Washington.

This is not about politics. This blog is about, at least for today, confirming that there's something distracting reporters, making it harder to be effective and productive. (when reporters are glued to the news feed that has nothing to do with the news they cover).

Perhaps today's news was especially distracting. I get that. But we've been having a lot of days like that recently. I call it news distraction or DC addiction. (I don't mean to be insensitive to those with real addictions; people who track the news hourly seem to have similar symptoms to real addiction.)

Which means, we as PR professionals need to discuss the following:

  1. How to reach reporters when they are distracted by news outside their beat areas.
  2. Should we try to reach them when they -- and, presumably, their readers -- are also distracted by the news? 
  3. Is anyone really paying attention to other news?
  4. What can we do to get out our news when reporters who cover the beat aren't able to focus on it?
What do you think? Let me know if you think I'm overstating things or if you have suggestions of other questions we should be asking as PR professionals trying to do our jobs.