COVID-19 comms: how to navigate Digital PR during a pandemic

Digital PR methods have changed drastically over the last few years. ‘Failsafe’ campaign concepts that were once guaranteed to land links on an array of top-tier publications began falling flat last year. Publications increasingly began changing their links to no-follow. And, of course, we’re attempting to navigate tougher times than ever with COVID-19.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s been incredible to see journalists, digital marketers and Digital PRs come together in these uncertain times to help one another. It’s also been great to see the industry evolving and adapting to the changing landscape.

I’ll be sharing some of my key insights, as a Digital PR and a former journalist, and observations from the webinars I’ve watched so far. 

It’s more important than ever for us to be following best practices, so I’ve listed some of the most important ones below, along with additional things to keep in mind.

How to land coverage amid COVID-19: 8 tips

I have already noticed that many Digital PRs have been incredible at employing the following techniques and landing coverage for their clients in a relevant manner, rather than finding a way to shoehorn them into the current agenda.

1. Read the news daily
The news cycle is changing at a rapid pace, so reading through a range of publications (both ones that you are and aren’t planning to target) is very important. Not only for keeping up with current affairs, but a quick browse through a variety of news sites can also inspire ideas, give you angles to work with and provide a clearer understanding of how the agenda is developing.

2. Embrace Twitter
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. While I’m active on Twitter most of the time, I’ve recently spotted opportunities that I never would have seen without the help of Twitter. As always, use the #journorequest hashtag to help you find journalists who could be the perfect fit for a pitch, maintain relationships with journalists (in a non-contrived way) for use in the future, or see if your client can offer reactive comments for a piece.

3. Make your subject lines stand out
I’ve said this before in my talk at Cardiff SEO and it’s essential right now. You could have the best pitch for your campaign, but if your subject line is too wordy and flat, your email will go straight into the bin. Make sure you could see your subject line as a headline. By this I mean, if you read your subject line tweeted out as a story headline, would you click on it? If the answer is no, start again.

Angelica Malin, Editor in Chief of About Time Magazine, recently suggested prefixing subject lines with the publication name e.g. ‘For About Time Mag: 10 tips for nailing handstands at home’. Additionally, she advises Digital PRs to stop using all-caps in subject lines and pitches, likening it to being shouted at.

4. Get. To. The. Point
Journalists are under a lot of pressure so get your key information/stats/points, across in the intro or first few lines of your pitch. Don’t make them dig for the story. The expert quotes should expand on the foundations you’ve built.

5. Give journalists exactly what they need
I was taught to do this when I started in Digital PR and I stand by it – it’s obvious but it works. Pitches should always include the relevant pieces of data and statistics, with the rest available on the campaign page or a Google sheet. Any additional pictures or videos to go with your pitch should be available to journalists via Google Photos, WeTransfer or Dropbox. Do not make journalists chase you. If you’re worried about overloading them with materials, make sure you have it all to hand and ready to send as soon as they ask you for anything else.

6. Expert comment is more important than ever before
I’ve always encouraged colleagues to include quotes (client and external experts) in their pitches because it saves time and lends authority to a piece. However, particularly in the current environment, asking an external expert or the client’s spokesperson to answer questions that are relevant specifically to the angle you’re pitching, gives you the freedom to pivot your client’s campaign and make it more relevant to the news agenda. Ensure that quotes aren’t too brand-focused and actually offer something new and different to what has already been published.

Another crucial part of this is turning things around to the journalist’s deadline. If you promise them quotes by the end of play, ensure you deliver.

7. Social media engagement
Both in terms of campaign conception and pitching, you need to be considering the ‘shareability’ of a story. Angelica Malin also revealed in her webinar: “Journalists are desperate for social media content, currently.”

Struggling with lighter campaign concepts at this time? Think about the stories you see on Facebook/Twitter that see hundreds of people tagging their friends and retweeting. Some examples are: baby name campaigns, stats about the worst/best drivers, the most sexually-active parts of the UK/world, the happiest/least happy places to live etc. If these are accompanied with pictures and video snippets that journalists can use, that’s a real bonus.

8. There’s no ‘right’ time to pitch with online news
This is something I learnt while working at OK! Online and I think it goes for most online news publications. I worked a variety of early (7am-3pm), late (3pm-11pm) and weekend shifts – and was rarely rota’d to work Monday to Friday – so the theory of pitching first thing on a Monday morning would be out of the window. This is something to really keep in mind with many journalists being furloughed or having to work longer hours and more weekends.

However, there are times when your pitch is too late. Metro.co.uk’s Assistant News Editor Sian Elvin explains: “We’re getting pitches in with expert comments about a topic I’ve already written about, they’re not going to be used. The story and news cycle has moved on by then.” So if you’ve got a time-sensitive story, don’t dawdle!

Be mindful of how much pressure journalists are under

Being a journalist isn’t for the faint of heart. Not only in terms of the number of articles you need to get out per shift (my target at OK! Online was a minimum of eight articles on a seven-hour shift), but also because many reporters are hired on a freelance basis, so job security also often plays on your mind. Additionally, smaller teams are now encouraged to match/surpass the output produced by their predecessors who had access to significantly larger teams.

Coronavirus has seen these teams shrink even further with many journalists being furloughed, asked to take voluntary unpaid leave or made redundant altogether.

Therefore, now is not the time to be asking for feedback on your pitch. As Metro.co.uk‘s Almara Abgarian stated on JBH’s webinar recently: “Don’t expect journalists to do your job for you. Don’t ask us for loads of feedback right now, because it’s not the time.”

Personally, as a general rule, I’ve always avoided encouraging people to bounce ideas off journalists for feedback. If you are reading your target publications for a campaign concept, you should already have an idea of the journalists, sectors and publications that concept would work well for – thereby eliminating the need to ask a journalist to validate your idea.

Rachel Ellen Pugh, Manchester Evening News Shopping Editor, echoed my thoughts on the idea of asking journalists for feedback on pitches and concepts in general, tweeting: “Never use the phrase ‘so I can feed back to my client.’ You’re essentially asking us to do your job for you – and it’s frustrating! It shows a disregard for journalists’ time, too. We have too much to do to be giving feedback.”

Follow-ups and how to handle them

As a personal rule, I’ve only ever followed-up on pitches to a journalist once and have always recommended others don’t exceed this. I also only follow-up via email. One follow-up is typically what journalists agree is acceptable in the current climate.

Unless it’s a breaking story that requires urgent attention, I’d also always advise avoiding phone calls – I hated them as a journalist due to their time-consuming nature, and the PR usually took too long to get to the point of the pitch (often about an email they’d sent an hour prior).

Angelica Malin also recognised that journos are time-poor at the moment, saying: “Leave follow-ups longer than you usually would as it’s taking people longer to get back to each other.” Adding: “We’re all anxious at the moment, so avoid follow-up phone calls, too.”

The crucial thing to remember regarding follow-ups is that while journalists don’t spend all day looking through emails, they are often quite good with getting through them. Sometimes a few may slip through the net or be forgotten about, but a follow-up is likely to remind them and make them take one of the following actions:

1. Read the pitch and write an article from it (YAY!)
2. File it in a folder for a weekend story or something to come back to
3. Delete it because it’s not worth writing up or isn’t relevant to their section

I recently spoke to the lovely Jasmine Granton, a fellow Digital PR, about follow-ups and thought her logic was excellent. In addition to following up once, she says: “[With] smaller publications/niche sites sometimes I’ll leave a little longer if it seems they have less resources.”

Building relationships with journalists

I thought this was important to cover as remote networking is far from easy. When I was a magazine journalist, PRs would be keen to meet face-to-face to pitch me their clients. This worked for traditional PR, but I don’t find it as viable for Digital PR. We are often pitching several different campaigns every month to hundreds of journalists in various sectors e.g. I could be pitching for a sporting brand and a finance company at the same time. Taking 60 journalists for dinner to sweeten up relationships isn’t very viable, both from a financial and logistical point of view.

My personal belief is that if your story is filled with quality data/statistics/visual assets and the opportunity for a journalist to amass plenty of views, a relationship isn’t necessary at all and the quality should speak for itself.

Of course, being friendly with journalists and having a rapport with the ones you go to regularly can help. This is where I think Twitter and Instagram are essential. However, I’d advise making it as organic as possible rather than sucking up to them with every tweet or post they do.

Angelica Malin echoes these sentiments and gives some tips on how to approach this: “Engage with journalists on multiple platforms, comment and share their pieces – say you like them, (when you genuinely do). Show that you are interested and engaged in the work that they do.”

Learning in lockdown

If you are in the mood to do a little learning and reading , Angelica Malin and Phil Hall, Founder & Chairman of The PHA Group, recommended a selection of suitable books for PRs in the current situation:

I’ve also attended a number of webinars since lockdown started and have learnt an enormous amount from each of them.. I’m often live tweeting as I watch them, so you can find more advice if you scroll through my tweets. Be sure to keep an eye on Twitter for up and coming webinars as that’s how I find the majority of the ones I’ve attended.

Keep the faith!

If you’re struggling to land links at the moment, try not to be too hard on yourself. Angelica Malin explains: “There’s a lot of change happening so don’t be disheartened that the stuff you’re pitching isn’t landing”.

This is a trying time for all of us, so while it can be stressful when targets are missed or clients pause activity, try to remember the enormity of the situation and go a little easier on yourself.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the journalists who have taken time out of their day to share advice on Twitter/webinars: Angelica Malin, Sian Elvin, Rachel Ellen Pugh and Almara Abgarian.

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about how you, as Digital PRs, are navigating your outreach and strategy at the moment, so feel free to tweet me @SurenaChande or add a comment below.

It’s also important to remember to ask for help, whether you need some reassurance and support from your team, your friends or anyone else (my DMs are always open and I’m happy to help). This is a particularly tough time, and if we all stick together, we’ll be stronger!