We need to talk: A plea from a 'Millennial'
There were so many things that surprised me when I made the transition from journalism to PR 15 years ago. One of the first lessons I learned was that media contacts are the Intellectual Property of the agency, and to a greater extent, the individuals who make up that agency.
Contacts, and knowledge of how to work with them, were the primary reason brands hired PR firms.
Within an agency, every account manager had their own rolodex (now I’m really showing my age) that they kept close to their chest. I worked with one account director who had an entire shelf in her bookcase filled with folios of journalists’ business cards. She called them her “little babies” and I swear she had an internal alarm that went off anytime someone came near them.
For a PR pro who had to do this job pre-Internet and pre-social media, those contacts were extremely hard won. And so, they were guarded like gold.
I spent hours every week sitting in newsrooms, building rapport with journalists in the markets in which we worked. I karaoke’d with bureau chiefs. I walked the halls of convention centers until my toes bled with editors from Ziff Davis. I let an IDG editor teach me self-hypnosis (it was actually really cool).
For my agency, I was the gateway to the media that mattered. I was.
Contacts are a commodity
But since my first agency job, the PR world has changed. These days, just like in sales, media contacts can be easily purchased. Everything from basic Finder Binder books in local markets, to international databases in Cision exist for the solely to provide media contact information. For several thousand dollars a year, you can purchase all the media contacts you could possibly want or need.
They won’t all be accurate or up to date, of course, but they’re a start.
And if you aren’t a trained PR pro you’ll likely engage those contacts in the wrong way, risking getting your brand negative marks or even backlisted.
Oh, and They’re Also Free
If you don’t want to lay out the cash for contacts, you’re in luck. You can find them using trusty old Google, reading mastheads or checking bios available on publication websites. There are also tools that will give you low cost or even free media contact info like Hey Press.
So do an agency’s contacts matter or not?
Well, they do, but here’s the nuance. Instead of showing you that they have access to contacts, PR agencies should prove to you that they have established relationships with the media who are most important to your brand.
And they need to do more than throw some logos up on a slide. That TechCrunch logo might represent one article that was secured by someone who has long left the agency.
We need to go deeper
Ask them to go deeper and prove the relationships exist. If they only point to things like number of years in business, names of other clients, and their depth of expertise, it’s okay for you ask for more.
Modern PR agencies should be able to demonstrate not only that they regularly engage with the media contacts that matter to you — across many team members, and not just one, single hero — but that they also know how to engage them in a way that gets results.
Think about it this way: just like with email marketing, it’s the response rates that matter, not the open rates. Having insights based on data like what pitches are most successful will also help you to better evaluate success.
Need a benchmark? About 35% of all targeted, outbound media pitching yields some type of response from journalists, and about 15%, yield a desired result – whether that’s an article, a briefing, a social media post, or something else.
Please also bear in mind that those results should lead to positive outcomes for your brand that tie up to your business objectives. This is another marker of a great agency; making sure PR success doesn’t end at getting “hits”.
Having established relationships with the right media, and being able to provide insights that yield results, agencies should also be able to show you how they go about building these relationships.
The expertise you care about is their knowledge on how to build and execute highly strategic PR programs that revolve around your business objectives, not their ability to build a media list and blast a press release to hundreds of media contacts.
So what of these contacts?
Now, as much as those contacts are a commodity, many agencies do the hard work of gathering the lists, keeping them up-to-date with the most relevant information, and managing the relationships. This takes a lot of work.
Not to mention, they don’t want bozo clients calling those contacts, making fools of themselves and everyone else. By keeping contacts well managed inside the agency, they’re protecting you the client, your brand, and their hard-won relationships.
You’ve got to respect that.
The best PR agencies know that if anyone can find a contact, anyone can ring them, email them or send them a tweet. They understand that creating transparent and trusting relationships with their clients is critical to shared success. And they don’t guard their media contact lists like gold, but instead focus on providing insightful counsel that gets results for your brand.
In the modern world of PR, transparency rules. Make sure you’re getting visibility you need.