Sorry for repeating a cliche you’ve already heard a billion times but it’s true — the COVID epidemic has changed everything. The norms, routines, and expectations that governed the way we work were turned upside down and we’re all in the process of trying to navigate (really sorry for this one too) the new normal.
The public relations industry has been affected as much as any other. Maybe even a bit more, when you consider how dependent it is on the oxygen of media attention, much of which has been consumed by other mask and lockdown-related headlines.
In an effort to take the temperature of the PR world at this strange point in our history, industry pros shared their thoughts on the biggest issues or problems that we face as a community going forward. Their answers span a wide range of topics, some a product of the pandemic while others are longstanding pain points for anyone involved handling publicity for clients for a living.
Here are some of the challenges facing PR in 2021 along with a few tips regarding possible solutions.
- Rebuilding face-to-face relationships (and making new ones)
- Getting top-tier coverage
- Managing client expectations
- Keeping your data well-organized
Top PR challenges in 2021
Rebuilding face-to-face relationships (and making new ones)
Let’s cover COVID-related issues first since so many people are still affected.
The pandemic made it difficult or impossible to meet in person at client meetings, industry events, and elsewhere. Sure, the whole planet learned to “Zoom” but there are still limits to contact in the virtual world. The drastic reduction in the amount of real facetime has led to previous contacts being lost and fewer new ones made.
For me, one of the biggest pain points is the inability to meet up with journalists in person at trade shows and other events. One solution has been to participate in virtual events such as Techfluence, putting significantly more effort into creating video footage for journalists, and finding ways to do demos over Zoom. We’ve been also training our clients how to effectively deliver messages online – it is a new skill set and not always intuitive.
As for managing client relationships “from afar”, believe it or not, one way to go about it is a simple phone call. These days everyone is so used to doing all business meetings on Zoom or Google Meet that phone calls have become more intimate and personal. When I want to really build a relationship with a new client I call them up. I also put more effort into knowing clients personally – such as their hobbies, their alma mater, and so on. Until we can get in the room and shake hands, it will have to do! – Ethan Rasiel, CEO @ Lightspeed PR/M
Another problem arising from the pandemic is the dislocation it has caused in staff, through downsizing or outright closures, and the resulting further loss of relationships. Many connections that PR pros had at a particular office or outlet are no longer there.
It’s difficult to keep track of which reporter or key contact at which media outlet still covers a particular industry or area, as many media outlets continue to downsize, rely on freelancers, or reconfigure. I find I have to do a lot more research on Google and other platforms to locate certain contacts, re-introduce myself to them and keep them top of mind when I might have a story that could interest them. – Jim DeLorenzo, Principal @ Jim DeLorenzo Public Relations
Even without major changes across media outlets, working from home just doesn’t make it easier to get in touch with the right people. As Dan Kahn, President & CEO of Kahn Media puts it: the newsroom dynamics of traditional agencies and media outlets are being lost in a sea of Zoom calls and emails.
This pivot to an increasingly remote workforce at media outlets has made it more difficult to be able to connect with the right person for the pitch via phone and in-person networking opportunities are only just now ramping back up. We’ve been able to overcome this challenge by creatively utilizing other available avenues of communication, like Twitter and LinkedIn, while simultaneously investing in elevating our brand presence in those channels to foster organic relationships. – Dan Kahn, President and CEO @ Kahn Media
Managing media relationships effectively is a common public relations issue these days. In PR, your contact database is your own personal gold mine, so it’s always worth the time and effort it takes to rebuild or refresh it. Look at the post-COVID landscape as an opportunity to do some housekeeping in your own database and reach out to everyone to let them know that you’re ready to work together when they are.
Getting top-tier coverage
Moving on to pre-COVID issues brings us to a classic, you might even say standard, challenge for anyone in PR — landing a big media fish for your client.
Getting anywhere on this front begins with breaking through the noise and that starts with getting noticed in journalists’ inboxes. Corina Leslie, PR Manager at ZeroBouce, gets to the heart of the problem when she points out that journalists that work for large and prestigious publications get more than 100 pitches a day, so getting attention is difficult.
Jenna Carson, Marketing Director at Music Grotto commented on the same issue, reminding us that as PRs become accessible on gig economy websites, journalists are increasingly bombarded with 100’s of pitches a day so in 2021 it is hard to make your story stand out and get published in a sea of other stories.
It’s even harder when you’re reaching out to someone you don’t have a relationship with. Christina Eyuboglu, Managing Director at Adduco Communications says that there are significant boundaries to reaching journalists, even today when there are multiple ways to reach out. The problem is, journalists now have information overload. They are getting pitches from email, text, phone calls, DMs, LinkedIn requests, Tweets, Instagram and TikTok comments, and more. Her solution?
I find reaching out to other publicists via Twitter to ask for advice or an introduction is really helpful. It also helps to follow journalists on social media so you can be up to date on what they are writing and what interests them. Collaborate with other publicists in your pitches to help refine your pitch to perfection. That extra step goes a long way. – Christina Eyuboglu, Managing Director @ Adduco Communications
It’s nothing you didn’t already know, but the competition for attention is fierce.
Even client messaging that is genuinely deserving of media attention can get lost in the tsunami of press releases sent to journalists. While it’s easy to get discouraged, persistence is key and, as Corina Leslie reminds us, it’s important not to compromise on the kinds of media coverage you want to get.
Like anyone in PR, I’d like to see us in Forbes every week. I realize that’s a little unrealistic, but having lofty goals has its advantages. – Corina Leslie, PR Manager @ ZeroBouce
Though it might be tempting to settle for easier wins to show clients that you’re at least getting some kind of coverage, it doesn’t matter if that coverage does nothing to promote them. At the same time, it can be a mistake to go straight after the marquee publication or platform if you don’t already have some kind of online footprint. Building your profile piece-by-piece can set you up for easier access to those more well-known outlets when the time comes.
Managing client expectations
If you work in a PR agency, you basically sell PR services so clients expect PR when they pay for PR. Sounds fair, right?
But it’s not so simple, is it? This isn’t like walking into a store and walking out with your purchase. Clients often don’t have the same understanding of what’s involved in addressing their needs as you do and that gap can turn into a serious pain point.
This problem can take many forms, but frequently it’s something along the lines of “You did it for them, now do the same thing for me.” Anika Jackson, founder & CEO of Anika PR, says that no matter how much her team shares about the process and how much time it takes, when clients see our successful pitches for others, they expect immediate results and get really unhappy when it doesn’t happen.
Anika also reminds us of another issue related to client expectations — insisting that what worked then can work now. Clients who had big PR hits 20 or 30 years ago, when PR was very different, don’t always understand that what they think is newsworthy may not be newsworthy in the current market, she says. Explaining the realities of a new digital world isn’t always something clients want to hear.
Andrea B. Clement, head of Clem.co LLC Media, shares a similar issue. Contrary to popular belief, PR is not an overnight, one & done effort,” she says. “You can’t just suddenly decide you need publicity and then retain a PR agency or publicist for one month and expect national coverage and placements. PR is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes months and years to build up a media presence, and it takes strategy, creativity, and hard work.
She also shares her own personal strategy for avoiding conflicts arising from different ideas about what her cooperation with a client should look like.
I won’t take on a client who has unrealistic expectations because it always results in disappointment. I want my clients to succeed, so I won’t take them on unless I’m fairly certain we can be successful together in securing the type of media coverage they want and need over time. – Andrea B. Clement, Head @ Clem.co LLC Media
It’s hard to offer good advice for what seems to be an unavoidable issue for public relations professionals. Openness and transparency are the best policies, along with a clear explanation or realistic goals and timelines right from the beginning of your cooperation with any client.
If you have different visions for where your cooperation is supposed to lead and how long it will take to get there, it’s just a matter of time before tensions rise. Keep clients posted on the progress (or lack of it) to avoid surprises and keep expectations in line with possibilities.
Keeping your data (and everything else) well-organized
We were quite surprised to see this as a recurring theme in many of the responses we got to the question of problems that PR leaders face going forward.
Maya Stern, Head of Marketing & PR for Creative Navy UX Agency, gets right to the point. The biggest challenge I face is aggregating PR data, as it’s scattered across various channels and platforms: podcasts, print, social media, news outlets, etc., she says. In order to devise effective strategies and move forward, I have to spend a lot of time collecting information. I frequently ask for advice within PR groups, and I know I’m not alone — my colleagues are going through the same thing.
Stressing out over keeping everything in order is definitely a growing problem. Some, like Alex Magnin, a PR professional from New York, find that the right solutions can bring relief.
The amount of work involved with constant monitoring and updating a PR database is quite significant,” he says. “Data management is the primary work involved in PR as it involves self-constructed or intricately designed spreadsheets. This pain is solved by investing in the right resources, such as professionals and technology specifically dedicated to data management. – Alex Magnin, PR professional
Others find that solutions can cause as much headache as they solve. Christian Adams, Co-Founder & Managing Editor of Coffee Affection, knows that special tech tools are there to help but still finds that sometimes going old school is a better way.
In the modern business world, there are an inordinate amount of tools that can help you stay organized. With that being said, though, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Managing a list of all your clients’ needs can be very difficult, especially using technology. Sometimes, I’ll revert to using pen and paper because it can feel more manageable at times. – Christian Adams, Co-Founder & Managing Editor @ Coffee Affection
Staying organized really is harder than ever partially as a result of being able to reach out to more people than ever. The days of keeping a handwritten contact list or special file are long gone. The good news is that, in this digital world, it’s now possible to keep more information at your fingertips than ever before. Take the time to get and keep everything in order and you’ll quickly discover the advantages that tools like Prowly can bring.
Top 4 PR challenges revealed
There are more than four challenges facing PR teams in 2021. Do these problems sound familiar to you? Do you have your own life hacks for dealing with them? What about something that we missed or that you’d like to know if other PR pros are dealing with?
If so, we’d love to hear from you and all about your experiences on the front lines of PR! Just drop us a line and tell us what’s on your mind.
Cover photo by Prateek Katyal