Any PR person can pitch a story and spokesperson to a journalist anywhere in the world, via multiple channels. Databases provide good coverage of contact details of business publications worldwide. Most media interviews take place on Zoom or Teams. There’s no PR activity at present digging out journalists of conference press rooms to meet clients, never mind spending time over drinks with journalists to scout their interests.
This begs the question: does media relations still need to be done locally? Other than time zones, what stops a PR person pitching to a journalist anywhere?
The short answer is that it all depends. Five factors matter.
Direct relationships with journalists, by an individual PR or a firm, count. Many journalists are slightly more likely to respond to someone they know, and who has helped with good stories in the past. Clients often overestimate the importance of relationships though. The pressures on reporters make even the best relationships transactional (no relationship is going to stop a reporter writing a great story). Relationships perhaps matter less in London and other large markets, than in many smaller markets.
Language matters a bit more. In many parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it’s a primary consideration. If you can’t speak the journalist’s native language, you’re not going to get anywhere calling them. In Europe it’s rarely on its own a decisive impediment. Business journalists speak English (a prerequisite for being hired) and most are comfortable in it. It does differ by country: in some, especially in southern Europe, some reporters are less keen on struggling in English – especially if it’s for a marginal story. The language problem comes rather from the fact that if you don’t read the publication, you can’t know what it has been writing about. That makes identifying the right reporter difficult, especially as press rooms in many markets work differently. Databases can get you emails and direct lines, but most fall short, at least for European continental media, in describing what individual reporters actually do. Large numbers are often flagged as “editors” of some kind. The most important thing to ascertain in targeting is which journalist has written the most similar stories recently – and that means reading the publication like a detective.
More important than relationships or language, though interlinked, is local knowledge – cultural and business understanding. It’s easy to exaggerate globalism. The front pages of German or French financial papers are not the same as those in London or New York. There’s overlap around stockmarkets, big tech results, large M&A, and US elections. But there are plenty of big national business stories, often government or policy related, that never cross over into other countries. Many aspects of business culture, such as diversity or formality, differ. Media practices crucially are also diverse, in terms of attitudes to off the record, quote checks and providing questions up front, but also around the willingness to do exploratory interviews without the certainty in advance of getting a good story. Without local experience and the ability to read the news outlets, you’re going to struggle to know what to emphasise in your pitch, and to know when to reach out and to whom. Renaissance people, who read every European newspaper, are thin on the ground, but a multilingual team with international experience can do this.
The industry segment is also important. Some by nature are more international than others, and that affects the ways beat journalists operate. Retail financial services or small business banking are much more local. Derivatives markets or crypto currencies, or oil markets, much more global. That affects whether journalists are using to being pitched to from the other side of the world.
The scale of the story you are promoting is the final main determinant. Media relations operates on two axes: securing coverage; and ensuring that the coverage secured is positive. If you phone a German journalist to inform them that your client Apple is buying Deutsche Telekom, you will undoubtedly secure an interview. Your problem is around ensuring the right tone of coverage, and dealing with the reaction of multiple stakeholders. But if you phone a German journalist to see if your widget expert, based abroad, could be interviewed to provide thought leadership, then your challenge is about securing coverage. That’s when local insight really matters.
You may ask whether technology, such as the use of machine learning to write stories and curate information coming into newsrooms, isn’t changing this world before our eyes. While such developments are reality, journalists on major publications and booking desks on TV stations are individually still sifting and judging multiple pitches every day in order to get to the best stuff. Information overload in fact puts a premium on more intelligent pitches to the right people, and some tech developments further reinforce this. For example, some newsrooms are now using filters to treat as spam untargeted emails that reach reporters for whom it’s irrelevant. That can lead to a PR firm’s whole domain being marked as spam.
In some markets, pitching from abroad can give caché, particularly if you have a big international client. This can be about perceived independence from local pressures. Local agencies can be seen as tied to particular industrial or indeed political forces. The complexity of such markets can put a premium on local advice, even if you keep that hidden from your public outreach.
Media relations does not simply consist of pitching. It’s also about briefing and coaching spokespeople to be interesting and relevant, and to deal with negative questions. If your spokesperson doesn’t know the market well, candour is essential in preparing them to sound informed and compelling.
When budget is available and it’s an important story for a client, it can often right to bring in a local freelancer or local PR firm. The trade-off here is that any short-term support is going to be less informed about the client’s business than a long-engaged PR team. You only get one chance to introduce a new client to a reporter, and sometimes knowing the nuances of the business outweighs local connections. Bringing in hyper-local expertise needs to be well managed.
My lessons in all this are:
- Be honest with your client about the complexities of the local media, the abilities and credibility of their spokespeople in a market, and the local capabilities that you can bring as an agency
- Sensibly localise your pitch to make it as relevant as possible, with statistics and anecdotes, and references to local trends or regulation. “Fake localisation” – sticking the name of a country into a generic pitch – is easy to spot.
- Deploy a multilingual and multicultural team. Give staff the time, money and encouragement to read major outlets in other languages, even if they’re not dealing with them every day.
- If you don’t have capability in a specific language, you can still do media research. Search functions make it possible to spot relevant similar stories and reporter names. Google translate can be a rough sense check.
- Recognise when you need to bring in a local freelancer or agency support, but ensure it’s well coordinated with broader efforts.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman