Public Relations: The Early Days (aka The 1980s)

Josh during his time working in public relations at the NEA

When I set out to find my first job in public relations in late 1979, I did what many newly minted English majors did — pored through the classified section of The Washington Post, running my finger down the column past pharmacists and physical therapists, psychologists and public health workers, to that largely ambiguous category: public relations. I’m not sure I had a clear idea what public relations really was, but I knew it had something to do with writing, so I thought it would be a pretty good fit and likely an easier position to secure than writing for Mad magazine, my other career interest at the time.

Back then, public relations was nowhere near as popular as it is today. For the few undergraduates who had an inkling that they might want to pursue a career in PR, they likely were journalism majors, or in my case, English (in which I am largely fluent). Public relations as a college major at the time was as rare as a rerun of Hello Larry. And so my eyebrows would leap suddenly whenever I happened upon a classified listing for PR, although invariably, the listing for the job would include “must have a neat appearance and reliable transportation.” While we like our folks at Hodges to largely be neat and reliable, those are hardly the priorities we look for when assessing whether someone has the communications skills to join our team.

In looking back, the world of public relations that I jumped into in 1980 was a dinosaur, a paper-laden undertaking that required as much dexterity and skill on the phone as anything else. I recall an early job interview in which the prospective employer asked if I had any “phone experience,” and my naivety about the question shone through in my answer, “you mean, like dialing?”

I did not get the job.

I did eventually land a position and soon became accustomed to the now antiquated dance that existed at the time between public relations people and the media, the steps of which went something like this:

  1. Draft a press release, and in some cases, put together an entire press kit, replete with fact sheets, photos, bios and all sorts of other tidbits that filled reporters’ desk in-boxes and, likely a short time later, trash bins.
  2. Figure out who you were going to send the release/kit to. Doing so invariably required calling up an outlet to determine who at that publication should get the information. If you were lucky, your call would make its way to the news room, and if you were super lucky, you could find someone who could direct you to the right person.
  3. Talk to the reporter and pitch your story idea. If this sounds akin to the kind of cold calls we now regularly get from sales people, it felt like that, too, especially to the reporters. That’s why so many reporters were reluctant to answer their phones, and because there was no voicemail back then, that just meant calling them back later until you actually heard someone breathing on the other end. (At some point, there was a tendency to just give up and send the information anyway.)
  4. The reporters typically responded in one of four ways:
    1. Doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in. Thanks anyway.
    2. Not sure, but send me something, and I’ll take a look.
    3. Sounds interesting. Shoot me some information and then get back to me.
    4. Who gave you my number?
  5. Send the material, as instructed.
  6. When you were sending a bulk mailing — to dozens or even hundreds of outlets — you had what was called a “stuffing party.” The staff would gather in Henry Ford assembly-line fashion behind stacks of releases, envelopes, and whatever you were stuffing into the press kit. The worst job on the line was the “licker,” the person responsible for sealing the envelopes, but mercifully someone invented this little plastic tube with a tiny sponge on the end of it, which could be used to swipe the adhesive flap of the envelopes. (Those who were particularly proficient with the tube/sponge could swipe 5-10 envelopes at a time, all laid out in a row, flaps open.
  7. The next step is public relations professionals’ favorite (he said, sarcastically), and that’s following up with the reporter you sent the information to, typically three or four days later. It doesn’t matter whether you sent it “blind” or had spoken to the reporter, there was an incredibly high chance that the reporter would have absolutely no memory of talking to you, or of getting the information you had sent with such high hopes. And so, cheerily, you would offer to resend it, and then you’d continue this shampoo, rinse, repeat routine until you got an answer directly, assumed the answer was no or moved on to another job.

Of course, there were plenty of occasions when the process worked seamlessly, notwithstanding its snail’s pace.

This was once the bleeding edge of media relations technology. (Photo by flickr user Michelle Kinsey Bruns)
This was once the bleeding edge of media relations technology. (Photo by flickr user Michelle Kinsey Bruns)

Over time, that pace quickened. The arrival of fax machines in the mid-1980s accelerated our capacity to get reporters information on a timely basis, at least in theory. Unfortunately, there were not enough fax machines to handle the volume of faxes that we PR folks were sending, and so you got a busy signal more often than not, WAY more often. Sometimes, when a reporter really wanted/needed the information, they would give you a top secret fax number to use, a number that was good only for a limited time before the word got out, and then that fax machine would be as clogged as the others. And to add another level of frustration, back then, the fax machines had no rollover feature — in other words, you had to connect with them in real time. You needed to find that precise moment when someone else’s fax had just finished going through. It was akin to being the 12th caller on some radio call-in contest. You could literally spend your day trying to get a fax to go through. Best to pack a lunch.

Not much later, however, came the arrival of computers. I have a vivid memory of that moment when my life as a PR professional changed. I was working as a press secretary on Capitol Hill, and because the congresswoman I worked for was from Rhode Island, I had a regular relationship with the two reporters in the D.C. office of the Providence Journal. I was letting one of them know one afternoon that I would be faxing over a news release, and he said, “you know, I think there is a way for you to send that release from your computer to my computer.” There was a long silence on the phone, as I was not really sure what this guy was trying to tell me. To be able to send information from one screen to another was, in my mind, akin to people actually traveling through those lines as well. But sure enough, after some trepidation, he walked me through the process, and before I knew it, he was reading the words on his screen that were on mine.

And so I firmly believe that history will judge that moment as the dawn of a new age of public relations.

In fact, the changes have been profound, and the digitization of our industry has led to an incredible transformation of how we communicate – not only its speed, but its capacity for greater breadth, its potential for enhanced efficiency and even greater levels of creativity.

On the media relations front, the protocols for interacting with the news media have compressed what used to take days into mere minutes. Building media lists no longer requires phoning outlets but simply logging onto online databases of journalists (e.g. Cision) where there are easy-to-maneuver search fields. Want to find who covers environmental issues for The Boston Globe, the automotive beat for the LA Times or the new products editor for Garden & Gun? Their email addresses are just a few keystrokes away.

And, of course, once you have those addresses, it’s easy to shoot a quick email to see if your story idea piques their interest. This does not mean to suggest that media relations has gotten any easier as a practical matter. Yes, the tools are more efficient and timely, but the competition is still just as fierce. Reporters tell us that hundreds of email pitches a day can find their way to their email in-boxes, and so breaking through that competitive clutter means ensuring that your pitch is compelling, that it’s being sent to the right reporter and that it’s personalized in a way as to resonate with that particular reporter or outlet.

The fact that newsrooms around the country — especially for print dailies — are shrinking only adds to the intensity of the competition for placing stories. From 2006 to 2014, the number of full-time newspaper jobs in the U.S. fell by a whopping 40 percent, from 55,000 to under 33,000. The reporters still on the job are being asked to do more, rushing to get stories posted online, updating information throughout the day and expanding the scope of their beats. Against that decrease in the newsroom has been explosion of public relations professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that in the 10 years leading up to 2014, the number of PR jobs grew by almost 23 percent. There are more than 230,000 PR practitioners in the country. Do the math: there are 10 times more PR people than there are reporters. Put another way, there is one beleaguered reporter for every 10 of us trying to get their attention. Yes, media relations is competitive, and despite all these technological advances, it’s still hard.

The good news for our industry is that concurrent with the contracting media landscape has been the growth of social media platforms, and these new outlets — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat — are giving PR pros new highly efficient tools through which to work our trade. The emerging Earned-Owned-Paid paradigm is quickly reshaping how we are helping our clients broaden their reach, enhance their credibility and fill the sales pipeline. While media relations is an important part of this new trilogy (that’s the “earned” part of the equation), media placements are no longer the be-all, end-all that they once were but simply one component of a larger strategy.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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