In public relations, does it really matter who you know?

7 Questions to Ask a PR Pro Instead of, “Who Do You Know?”

“Who do you know?” 

When you work in public relations, that’s a question that comes up A LOT.

As in, which journalists do you know?

Whenever I speak with a prospective client, I almost hold my breath, waiting for its dreaded utterance.

“Don’t say it. PLEASE don’t say it.” 

To be honest, it can be a bit jarring.

It’s as if they’re expecting you to namedrop. 🙈

It tells me that person doesn’t understand public relations (or journalism) and how it works.

Yet, the perception persists.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked, “Who do you know?” well, you know the old saying – I’d be rich by now.

Why Public Relations ISN’T About Who You Know

As a public relations practitioner, you often work with journalists to help secure earned media coverage for clients. Along the way, you meet a lot of editors and reporters.

How do you meet them? Usually, it’s because you sent a compelling story idea, a press release, a contributed article or a thought leadership piece that was a fit for their audience.

Sometimes, the reporter works for a local publication, in which case it may be more likely that you’ll pitch them again in the future, thereby establishing a relationship.

Or they may work for a publication in an industry you happen to specialize in. You’ll probably run into them repeatedly.

But it’s important to remember that even if you’re able to establish relationships with reporters, many are currently going through layoffs or other transitions.

According to reporting from Axios, the media industry has announced at least 17,436 job cuts so far this year, marking the highest year-to-date level of cuts on record. Further, newsroom employment in the U.S. has dropped by 26% since 2008.

So you see, even if you worked with Joe Journalist at the local business journal last month, next month, sadly, he may no longer be there.

How Journalism Works

Another point to keep in mind is that journalism is a little more complicated than some folks may think.
Journalists are indeed looking for stories – but not just any stories. It’s not like a PR consultant can simply contact a reporter they may have worked with in the past and say, “I have this story a client wants me to share with you – you’ll run it, right?”

This is earned media, not paid.

It’s not an ad. 
Reporters are in search of story ideas that are a fit for their audience. Stories that are timely and haven’t already been published by a million other media outlets.
This means that to land earned media coverage, the client and PR practitioner need to be working together to come up with ideas so the practitioner can craft a pitch that will appeal to a particular journalist. 
The ideal story may very well come from a pitch sent by a public relations practitioner the reporter has never encountered before.
If the story idea is compelling and well-written, it’s much more likely a reporter will get in touch to learn more.
Unfortunately, reporters rarely receive these types of pitches.

It’s more likely they’re just one of MANY on a media list that’s not been carefully curated. So they’re receiving a generic pitch spammed out to a lengthy list someone generated using an outdated media database.

That’s sure to make a journalist feel special. 😕

To make matters worse, in some cases, the pitch has been generated using AI, meaning it’s even MORE generic.
This is a formula for failure.

What Journalists Have to Say About “Who do you know?”

I posted about the dreaded “Who do you know?” question on social media, and here’s what a couple of journalists who responded had to say:

“Thank you!!! Sick of people saying relationships with journalists matter. We run good stories. A PR person could be my best friend, and I still wouldn’t be able to run their story if it didn’t fit my audience.”

Or this response:

“Yes! I get dozens of pitches daily with no discernable news peg. PR friends: save your email from the Delete button by answering ‘Why now?’ every time you reach out.”

7 Alternative Questions to Ask a PR Consultant or Agency

What’s more important than who a public relations provider knows? Here are seven questions you can ask that may be much more helpful in determining a good fit for your brand:

  1. What experience do you have in our industry?
  2. What’s your process for finding earned media opportunities for us? (Make sure the word “proactive” comes up in this discussion.) 
  3. Do you do your own research and writing? (If AI is used, that can expose the client to risks.)
  4. How will we work together? How often will we meet?
  5. How will we measure success?
  6. What should we expect in the first three to six months of an engagement?
  7. Who will be doing the day-to-day work on our account?  

And, if you’re pitching your news and stories to journalists yourself, keep in mind that a story idea should be:

  • Timely
  • Newsworthy
  • A fit for the journalist’s audience
  • Supported by additional resources: Data/statistics, third-party sources, visuals, and background information

The pitch you send should be brief. It should include your contact information and links to additional resources (use a Dropbox link for your visuals, for example).

When It Comes to Earned Media Coverage, A Good, Timely Story Matters Most 

These elements all matter FAR more than whether or not a public relations person has a relationship with a particular reporter.
Because, even if a PR practitioner has worked with a reporter in the past, that doesn’t mean that reporter is always going to run every story they pitch – UNLESS it’s a good, timely story that’s a fit for their beat. 

A skilled PR pro understands this – and will work with you to help you land the earned media coverage you seek. 

Need help securing earned media coverage for your brand? Learn more about my public relations consulting and writing services here.

100% of this blog post was written by me, the human.

About the author: Michelle Garrett is a B2B PR consultant, writer, and speaker who helps B2B businesses create content, earn media coverage, and position themselves as thought leaders in their industry. Michelle’s articles have been featured in Entrepreneur, Muck Rack and Ragan’s PR Daily, among others. She’s the founder and host of #FreelanceChat on Twitter and a frequent speaker on public relations and content. Michelle has been repeatedly ranked among the top ten most influential PR professionals.

Michelle's B2B PR Book is AVAILABLE NOW!

B2B PR Book cover