Thought Leadership

February 9, 2017

“Up to My Eyeballs in Trump” – Media Relations in the Era of the New President

Heather Caufield

With the new president’s ability to dominate the news cycle, we’re officially experiencing a new media relations reality. Heather Caufield weighs in on how communications professionals can navigate the changing (and challenging) waters.


The inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009 was the first time in my public relations career that I experienced what it was like for a story to consume nearly every element of the news. From fashion bloggers to business reporters, what was happening inside the Beltway in the weeks leading up to and immediately after that historic event was, for the most part, the only thing being covered by the media. Luckily for me, one of my main client projects at the time was handling PR for an inaugural ball. Yet I still vividly remember how tough it was for my colleagues and me to break through with any unrelated media pitch.


Fast forward to the present day. The election and inauguration of Donald Trump have also been historic, for different reasons. As the media landscape became increasingly laser-focused on all things Trump following the holidays, I counseled my teams that the news cycle would be sure to calm down about a week or so after January 20. Yes, reporters were being pulled off beats and nearly every headline was related to the political environment. But eventually things would go back to something closer to “normal.”


Then, on January 30, one of my colleagues received the following response to a pitch from a reporter: “I am up to my eyeballs in Trump, so not right now.” Clearly my optimism was misguided. At least for the foreseeable future, we are officially experiencing a new reality when it comes to media relations.


Much has been said and will continue to be analyzed about the new administration’s relationship with the media – including the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Beyond these critical discussions, communications professionals must also be thinking seriously about their own relationships with the media.


From the signing of an official executive order to the simple posting of a tweet, the new president knows how to dominate the news cycle. And if Trump is the story, how does that impact our ability to successfully land media coverage telling the stories and sharing the perspectives of the companies with which we work? A pitch or campaign that was sure to be a major win last year may produce only meager news results today.


What is a PR professional to do? I’m reminding myself to focus on four things:


1. Don’t Panic: First and foremost, stay calm. Media relations is just one part of a successful integrated communications program. Take a step back and examine your entire plan. Look to shift emphasis to other tactics, channels and approaches. If your media pitches aren’t moving the needle, what more can you do with content creation, social strategies or influencer engagement to share your message more broadly?


2. Be Strategic: Smart strategy must be the cornerstone of every PR program and media relations effort. But now more than ever, strategic focus is absolutely critical – both in terms of what you choose to do, and what you don’t. If tying your pitches to politics is one of the only ways in right now, have a serious conversation with your key stakeholders and spokespeople about the pros and cons. What does the organization have to add to the conversation? Does it open them up to more risk than they have a tolerance for? Jumping into the fray without first answering these questions could lead to unintended consequences.


Also, remember the basics. ALWAYS do your research before pitching reporters. Make sure your go-to retail reporter at the Wall Street Journal isn’t suddenly covering the unfolding immigration travel ban. And don’t let pressure from a client or boss to produce results cause you to be tone deaf to this new reality. Repeatedly emailing and calling reporters with a pitch that isn’t resonating right now will not strengthen your relationships long term.


3. Communicate: A tough news environment can often lead to equally tough questions from clients or leadership about a lack of results. If this hasn’t already happened to you, be proactive about communicating the current challenges with all relevant stakeholders. Never assume that everyone within an organization will automatically understand how the nature of the news cycle can impact efforts. Be honest about the situation, but also don’t lean on excuses. Come with potential solutions. Drive home the importance of strategy and ask stakeholders to be involved in the process. These difficult conversations often lead to new ideas or productive shifts in short term focus and strategy.


4. Get Creative: Jazz legend Duke Ellington once said, “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” Use the challenging news cycle as a chance to reinvigorate your team and execute some of your most creative work. Try new tactics, pitch new verticals, test fresh approaches and, above all, be nimble.


Because ultimately, sitting back and waiting for things to go back to “normal” is not a winning strategy.

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