For PR pros, changing landscape of journalism has altered everything from pitches to vital relationships

While dangling from one of Arizona’s rocky cliffs, Brian Hyland’s client placed his climbing gear into a locked setting to answer his buzzing cell phone.

On the line was a Wall Street Journal reporter who wanted to talk about a product. In spite of the sheer drop beneath him, the vacationing company leader had been anticipating the call — and paused his ascent to go ahead with the interview.

Brian Hyland. (Cricket Public Relations)

His client’s willingness to go above — far above — and beyond that day earned Hyland, co-founder and CEO at Cricket Public Relations, a strong relationship with a reporter. As New Jersey’s newsrooms continue to shed the reporters they have on staff by the day, public relations professionals need those relationships now more than ever.

“Shrinking newsrooms have left a lot of journalists overworked, so, we really have to rely on having those connections,” he said. “In the PR world, we recognize that, at this point, PR folks actually outnumber journalists. Many journalists have actually gone into PR, which is just fueling that even more. That dynamic has changed our industry.”

Announcements of local newspaper closures, such as the shuttering of the 40-year-old Hudson Reporter earlier this year, have become the norm. It’s in line with the national trend, even if the Garden State reportedly leads most states in newspaper staff layoffs. An average of two newspapers exit the media landscape every week, according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Broadcast news companies have had their share of problems as well, evidenced by layoffs announced this month at New Jersey’s News 12.

Brendan Middleton. (MikeWorldWide)

Brendan Middleton, senior vice president at MikeWorldWide, indicated that the swell of media layoffs has reached such a height that PR professionals have had to make a habit of always double-checking (via social media) where reporters have landed ahead of a pitch.

“You might have a reporter publish a story one week and the next, they have a new home,” he said. “And, actually, the better relationship you have with a reporter, the more likely it is you’ll know what’s going on and where they might go before they even announce it.”

This new reality in the media landscape has been the product of many years of losses in newsroom personnel. The years following the 2008 recession are often cited as the period constituting the steepest declines.

Tara Dowdell. (File photo)

“Still, it’s drastically different than it was even five years ago,” said PR guru Tara Dowdell. “It presents a huge challenge for PR professionals to have fewer subject-matter specialists. Journalists are often covering multiple areas and beats as newsrooms shrink.”

The local communications entrepreneur behind the Tara Dowdell Group said that’s where having established relationships with the still-remaining reporters at publications is key. But PR professionals have learned they can’t expect those reporters to have the same bandwidth as they did when they were in fully staffed, bustling newsrooms.

“So, we not only have to make sure our pitches are really relevant to their readers and listeners now, but we have to think about how often we pitch and how often we follow up with journalists who are being asked to do a lot more with a lot less,” Dowdell said.

PR experts have media exposure goals they set with clients. But, they all agree it’s paramount they balance that with a new cadence for following up with a media outlet’s staffers. Frankly, these professionals admit they’re just trying their best not to come across as an annoyance to reporters covering a job once covered by multiple reporters.

They’re also uniformly aware that they’ve got maybe two lines — and definitely not a wall of text — to stand out among the hundreds of other pitches reporters receive in a day.

There is a silver lining, however, that those doing PR are finding.

Pamela Brownstein, former executive editor of the New Jersey Law Journal herself, knows all about the rush of deadline-driven media jobs. As president of communications and marketing firm Jaffe Brownstein Strategies today, she believes PR professionals can serve as assets to understaffed newsrooms.

“What happens with something like a law story is that reporters can be thrown a story that they don’t have the background in law to fully understand,” she said. “That’s where my clients can be very helpful in providing explanations.”

Part of the value PR firms are bringing to newsrooms with tight budgets is new emphasis on predicting photography and video needs and supplying them, added Violet PR’s April Mason. With fewer newsrooms having their own photographers on staff, that’s more of a non-negotiable feature of PR than it once was.

With journalists being as inundated with pitches as they are, Pam Boyd of Moorestown-based Thomas Boyd Communications said PR professionals have to go beyond the pitch in order to maintain reporter relationships.

“The approach is different … and it’s much more of a partnership today,” she said. “We’re anticipating their needs, between having photos, graphics and videos in advance to pair with the messaging — and, ultimately, content — that we’re putting out.

“And that new level of collaboration just enhances what hasn’t changed over the years: A foundation of trust and solid relationships between journalists and PR professionals. If there’s mutual respect there, that’s going to continue to yield favorable results.”

Expectations are shifted alongside the media landscape’s transformation. That’s meant for managing client expectations, too.

Maybe that doesn’t always involve a company spokesperson being forced to take a call while scaling a mountain in the Southwest. …

“But, it might involve some new patience on the part of clients,” Hyland said. “Like I always tell clients: PR is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Employees as ‘public’

What do Detroit automakers, big-chain coffee-makers and Hollywood movie-makers all have in common? They’ve needed some help making employees happy.

Scott Marioni, principal of R&J Strategic Communications, said the country’s resurgent labor movement holds implications for the work of PR professionals.

Scott Marioni. (File photo)

“It has a dramatic impact on how we counsel clients in terms of internal communications,” he said. “Companies want to build affinity among their workforces, and they can’t do that being disingenuous in an environment with this much mistrust.”

The way public relations firms play the role of counsel in an area such as this is often overlooked, said Brendan Middleton, senior vice president at MikeWorldWide.

“It’s funny, because, when we think of PR, the term ‘public’ doesn’t always mean the outside world,” he said. “In this context, it means who’s your public; who’s your audience. That might consist of the media or customers, it might be investors or various other stakeholders, or it might be employees — and that’s, for many organizations, your most important audience. And, so, effective communication begins there.”

Marioni explained that PR firms added this to the scope of their work in a new way in response to their clients needing to communicate to employees what their policy was around post-pandemic returns to the office. He believes PR professionals, on a national level, will have some role to play in repairing employer-employee connections possibly severed in labor disputes.

How do you even measure the effect of these efforts? There are the tangibles, such as retention rates. There are also regular surveys that gauge employee sentiment.

“As for the keys to success … I think that will involve consistent solicitation of feedback and addressing them in a way that’s fair and equitable before problems arise, as well as walking the walk if you’re talking the talk,” Marioni said.