It isn’t a secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything — from the way we interact with our colleagues to the way we operate our businesses.
But one of the most important things for communicators to analyze right now is the way the pandemic has affected journalists, who are our most important relationships in the PR profession.
Five months into the pandemic, I sat down to talk to New York Times staff reporter Anahad O’Connor. We chatted about his ever-changing life with an 18-month-old son, the way his industry has responded to the pandemic and what has changed for better and for worse.
Here are five major lessons I took from our conversation, along with tips to implement them:
1. Journalists have lives, too.
This should be easy to understand, but it’s important to remember: The people on the other side of those emails are going through just as many complicated times in 2020 as you are.
“It’s been a whirlwind for me, as it has for a lot of people,” O’Connor said. “Life today is very different than it was a year ago, whether that’s work or everyday life. I’m based in San Francisco, and it’s a very different world. So we’re just adapting.”
Amid the hustle and bustle of being a communicator in the middle of a pandemic, it can be easy to gloss over building relationships with the journalists you’re working with. If you neglect that portion of the job, then you will make doing your job even harder.
A combination of understanding, relationship-building and sensitivity to the challenges of a journalist’s life can go a long way, especially in 2020. Remember that before you get angry about the length of time it takes to receive a response from a reporter.
“I think [I], and a lot of my colleagues, have a lot less time, particularly those of us who have families,” O’Connor said. “So I am, for example, at home with my wife and my child, my son, who’s almost 18 months now. We don’t have daycare, we don’t have childcare, so we’re juggling our daily work obligations with childcare. So I don’t have a spare 30-40 minutes during the day to sit down and do a meet-and-greet via Zoom. I think a lot of people are a lot more pressed for time because of the constraints as a result of the pandemic.”
Journalists want to do a great job and they want to write great stories. Remember that, although they might be busy, maintaining relationships can allow you to help them do their jobs while meeting your goals.
2. Get used to competing with COVID.
As much as we would all love to be able to stop hearing about the pandemic 24/7, the fact is that COVID-19 is one of the biggest news stories of our lifetimes and will continue to dominate headlines well into next year. O’Connor agreed that he’d love to be covering other topics more, but it just isn’t feasible in the current climate.
“[The pandemic has] been all-consuming, particularly for me as someone who focuses on writing about consumer health,” he said. “I have a pretty broad beat, but… we’re all focusing and covering different aspects of COVID-19 — how it’s changing life for Americans and people around the world. So just the fact that we have this all-consuming story has been a big change.”
That means PR pros need to get used to our new normal amid the pandemic. Continue crafting pitches around links to the virus, or if you’re working with an unrelated topic altogether, then be sure to give it the best possible angle to break through to the outlets you’re targeting. And O’Connor was quick to remind me that, even while COVID-19 dominates headlines, there’s still room for good unrelated stories.
“The paper has a lot of coverage of (the pandemic), and I think readers want to read about other things as well,” he said. “So I’m looking for other stories at the moment that are non-coronavirus related, as well as pursuing my usual coronavirus stories.”
3. Journalists are gathering information in new ways.
The remote nature of O’Connor’s job means that he and others are approaching journalism in different ways. For instance, one of his favorite ways of generating sources was to have a “deskside meeting” with people, talking casually over coffee rather than doing a formal interview. Now, that dynamic has completely changed.
“When I get those emails, I think, ‘Well, deskside, that’s probably not ever going to happen again in the near future.’ And those used to be meetings that I was very open to,” he said. “I’d go and meet someone for coffee for 20-30 minutes and just have a chat. But I think it’s a much more different dynamic doing that via Zoom. I would just go and sit down with someone for coffee and just hear them out and just listen. It’s a little more awkward just doing that over Zoom, if there’s not an actual interview that I’m going to do or a specific topic that I’m going to be asking someone questions about.”
But just because casual interactions can be a bit awkward on Zoom doesn’t mean that reporters aren’t willing to engage in remote ways. While those quick deskside meetings don’t fit in the Zoom world, O’Connor said he’s now become significantly more likely to use video calls rather than a phone call.
These nuances are why it’s important to build those relationships with journalists you know and work with. Be sure to ask reporters the ways they would prefer to work together. And of course, stay flexible.
“I think we’re much more open to (remote interviews) nowadays, of course,” O’Connor said. “And in fact, I’d say interviews that I would previously do just by phone, I’m now much more likely to do by Zoom. So I’d be interviewing people on the phone and I wouldn’t see their faces, and now we say, ‘Why not hop on a Zoom call and actually see the person I’m interviewing?’”
4. Outlets still need visuals to go with stories.
While much of O’Connor’s job can be done remotely, the photographers and videographers that put together visuals to complement his work have a more difficult time without being on the scene. That means that even at The New York Times, submitted visuals are coming in handy.
“Traditionally, we like to send out our own photographers and videographers, but we’re much more open to using that sort of content from outside sources now,” O’Connor said.
However, that process is sometimes leaving publications with subpar visual content, especially those with fewer resources than The New York Times.
“At the Times, we have a whole department of photo editors and video editors, and they definitely want the higher quality photos and videos,” O’Connor said. “So thankfully, I don’t have to make the call on that, but I do the reporting, I do the writing, I file the story and then I tell my editor: ‘These are the options. This is what I’ve been supplied with. What do you think?’ And sometimes they come back and say, ‘Oh, we can’t use this. We need something that’s better quality.’”
When a reporter or editor is mulling over the publication of a story, guaranteed high-quality images could be a make-or-break part of the project. Before your pitch, be sure to have a visual plan in mind — it could be the difference between a journalist passing on a story or featuring it.
5. Journalists are hungry for good, diverse sources.
One of the best outcomes of 2020 so far has been a renewed focus on diversity and representation, and that theme reaches into journalism as well. O’Connor said The New York Times leadership has been “aggressive” in improving diversity among their staff, while reporters like him are trying to do the same in the stories they’re reporting. He said when presented with a variety of interview options, he tries to choose a diverse group of sources, something communicators would be wise to remember.
“[Diversity] is something that I certainly am mindful of when I’m working on stories. It’s something that my colleagues are trying to be more mindful of in working on stories,” he said. “And I think it would be great for communicators and people in media relations to be mindful of that as well. …For example, if I’m writing about a study that has many authors are co-authors on it — instead of just picking the lead author, I’ll look and see if I can interview both a man and a woman, or I try to include different voices in the story.”
Those principles don’t just apply to diversity and inclusion, either. O’Connor said communicators he works with often present a source with a vague pitch like, “Would you like to speak with them because this is in the health area and you write about health?” He said journalists find those offerings “general and broad,” and they’re unlikely to make a mark.
“Especially nowadays in this pandemic — where there’s so much news coverage, an onslaught of news every day and journalists are pressed and constrained for time for various reasons — I think you need to figure out what is the unique hook or angle, highlight that, and be precise and upfront about it,” he said.
Reporters like O’Connor are always looking for great stories and good sources. PR pros can capitalize on that by knowing your sources well and prioritizing those who are relevant and interesting, offering diversity, a strong viewpoint or an interesting story rather than a vague idea.
Lisa Arledge Powell is president of MediaSource, an award-winning communications agency that that specializes in helping brands find and create stories that drive their business forward. Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @LisaArledge[Photo credit: alex ruhl]