The Summer of Slow PR (and How to Navigate It)

7/22/2021
— Kyle Monson, Partner & EVP, WE Codeword 

Does it seem like everything’s moving a bit more slowly this summer? It takes a few extra minutes to get your burrito, or a few extra hours to reach customer service. Neighborhood restaurants are closed earlier. Businesses want to hire, employees want to quit.

It’s a weird energy right now.

So gather around for some real talk that we’ve been sharing with our clients over the past few weeks.

For years, we’ve been counseling clients that the summer doldrums don’t really exist in the media world. Go ahead and launch your products in July, host your events in August — our journalist friends are working, our audiences are online, and they all want stories. Hell, July is the start of holiday gift-guide season, so summers tend to be anything but slow.

Summer of 2021 is completely different. We’re seeing a real slowdown in coverage for clients, and in media responsiveness generally. This is especially true for enterprise, B2B, SaaS, funding rounds, acquisitions… stories that would’ve gotten blanket coverage 18 months ago are now an exclusive. Stories that would’ve picked up an exclusive aren’t getting anything at all. Tier-1 features are often downgrading to Tier-2 articles, and Tier-2 articles are now Tier-3 blurbs.

All this is obviously very discouraging, both for PR pros and for their clients. But the trend is undeniable enough that we might as well call it out publicly.

Based on our recent conversations with a few journalist buddies, here’s what’s going on and how we can manage this challenging moment.

Our journalist friends are saying this summer is rough for them too! I talked to one a few days ago who said she’s burned out and trying to enjoy hot vaxx summer by ignoring everything that isn’t super exciting and right on her beat.

In-person meetings are tough to land, too, for lots of obvious reasons. Journos are finally using their stockpiled vacation days, and with the Delta variant flying around, there’s hesitancy to meet IRL.

An editor friend pointed out that many publications (including some of our go-tos) are also dealing with staffing issues — and it’s not like they were heavily staffed coming into this summer.

Compounding all that: Holy shit there’s so much happening in the tech world! SPACs and IPOs and massive funding rounds and big new funds raised and gossipy company implosions and a stampede of new unicorns. Remember when unicorns were rare? In the olden days, a startup journalist would know them all. We’re likely to hit 1,000 unicorns before the end of the year. Even a billion-dollar valuation doesn’t confer special status.

The point is, it’s never been harder to get noticed in a burned-out reporter’s inbox. “It’s like nonstop pitches,” one said to me last night. And I suspect this will be the new normal, for both PR agencies and the journalists we work with. Sorry!

So what does that mean for PR? Should you fire your PR agency? Should you cancel your RFP?

“Obviously not!” says the guy who runs a PR agency.

The value of earned media hasn’t changed, and we’re still doing good work for our clients, including plenty of big visible earned-media campaigns. But these take more planning, more lead-time for the journalists, and savvier pitching to smaller groups of more relevant publications.

Which, tbh, are all things we’ve been advocating for a long time, both internally and with clients. Slow PR. Focus our efforts on fewer initiatives, more impactful coverage, smaller media lists (or no media lists).

I get that it feels unnatural. Startups and tech companies like to go fast, with rapid-fire tactics that drive broad coverage and awareness. And it makes sense. Lots of us came of age in a media world where positive coverage was pretty easy to get. Everyone — from the CMO to the CEO to the board to the VCs — thinks the company and the technology is world-changing and should be on the front page of every national publication and on the lunch hour of CNBC. I get it!

But most news announcements don’t warrant blanket coverage, and nowadays they won’t get it anyway.
When the pitch isn’t landing, or there’s a placement quota to hit, the tendency is to grasp for any wins you can get. But here’s how we shouldn’t respond to a slowdown in client coverage:

  • expanding our media pitching instead of improving it
  • burning hours and hours on HAROs and small-time podcast
  • getting all spun up on Slack about a client opportunity that really isn't gonna move the needle
  • lining up those terrible pay-for-placement "opportunities" in media outlets nobody's heard of

We’re advising our teams and our clients to use this moment to evolve their approach. There are lots of ways to reach audiences beyond earned media coverage, if we take an integrated approach where the headlines are useful but they aren’t everything.

From Codeword’s POV, slow, integrated PR means a few things:

  • Think about things we can make, rather than stories we can pitch.
  • Invest time in media education, especially for complex technologies. "Can we take 20 mins to explain the state of the ____ industry" hits different than a story pitch.
  • Focus our pitching on high-level features and trend stories. If journalists are prioritizing the big stuff, so should we. It takes much more time to gather data and materials we need for these pitches, but the impact is much greater too.
  • Be extremely respectful of our media contacts, even more so than usual. Support our stressed out journalist friends by not sending them that hail-mary pitch.
  • Plan to give journalists a ton of lead time, even if it annoys the client.
  • Take a holistic approach to our story. What channels can we use beyond earned media? What formats can we take advantage of?
  • Some clients will feel liberated by this approach. Others will be frustrated, so expect to put more time into coaching and consulting with them.

Codeword is lucky/brilliant enough to have an in-house editorial team, digital strategists, designers, data analysts, a video director. For clients that are willing to slow down, we’re creating the kinds of media packages that will get attention on our owned channels, and with our media friendlies.

It takes more time, creativity, and patience, but in the summer of slow PR, what do we have to lose?