I Wish I Knew These Three Things Before I Started Working In Public Relations

Yinon Raviv
8 min readMay 15, 2020
“Dog Gone Funny” by Lucia Heffernan

Ever since I was little, my mother wanted me to be a journalist. I was a good kid growing up and never really got in trouble, but I still had pent-up rebellion brewing deep inside me.

So when I graduated college, I took a job working in PR.

Not as cool as buying a motorcycle and getting busted smoking cigarettes behind the school gym, I know, but it was my rebel moment. After two intense, exhilarating, and endlessly fascinating years at Check Point Software in the in-house public relations department, I left for an opportunity to focus on writing.

Shelter-in-place has given me a lot of time to reflect, so I started thinking about what I wish I knew before I started. I wrote this article as a letter to my younger self, in that sense, as a collection of insights and lessons I learned. I owe a debt of gratitude to my colleagues, managers, and mentors from Check Point, but I must make it clear that none of what I write here reflects the views of my old employer — it’s just my own thoughts and opinions.

With the legalese out of the way, let’s dive in. There’s three main elements to a successful PR program: your relationships with reporters, your newsworthiness instincts when pitching, and your ongoing thought leadership efforts.

Always Ask Yourself: Does This Add Value To The Journalist’s Life?

There was this particular security editor at Buzzfeed News that, no matter how well I tailored my pitches, would never respond to my emails. I might as well have been shouting into the void.

It makes sense, when you consider that there are six public relations professionals to every one journalist.The media industry has been in dire straits for quite some while now, and with COVID-19 so badly hurting consumer spending power, ad revenue is melting down. Journalists are vastly overworked, underpaid, and understaffed.

This reality should guide your thinking and actions when interacting with journalists. Every single thing you do with the journalist — every email, every pitch, every conversation — you need to internally ask yourself, at every turn, “does this add value to their lives?”

A good PR person connects the dots: they understand deeply what the company has to offer to the reporter, and understand broadly what the reporter might need from the company. Good PR professionals help reporters with resources they don’t have — domain expertise, exclusive research, executives that offer soundbites and perspectives on trending topics. And they operate with empathy to the reporter’s day-to-day pain points, knowing that they’re getting dozens of cold emails an hour from faceless flacks.

I finally reached that editor at Buzzfeed when I stopped pitching and started helping.

One day, I saw that he tweeted his confusion about some technical cyber security problem. I emailed him, telling him that my company had security researchers specializing in that particular area, and that we were happy to offer our time and expertise, no strings attached.

He took us up on that offer. Our R&D department were total team players and graciously stepped up to help, and all of a sudden, I had a media briefing to staff at five in the morning the next day.

Five AM PDT rolled around, and the editor showed up with a detailed list of the gaps in his research. Our researcher patiently explained his perspective on each point, which sparked a tangential question from the editor. They started bouncing thoughts off each other, getting so deep in a rabbit hole on mobile adware architecture that I started deleting apps off my phone out of paranoia.

At the end of the conversation, the editor mentioned that he had an unrelated investigation he was working on that he could use an extra pair of expert eyes on. If our researchers could help him confirm/deny some assumptions and point him in the right direction, we would get published as part of that story.

And we did exactly that.

We helped him with his stories, sometimes for explicit credit in the story, other times as an act of good faith. Whenever our research leaders went to a conference in his town, we’d offer an in-person briefing: a chance for him to pick their brains on the cutting-edge questions in cybersecurity, and a chance for the company to strengthen our relationship beyond the transactional bounds of the press release cycles.

Our relationship blossomed to the point where he’d actually respond to my pitches. Sometimes, he would run the stories. Other times, he would pass them off to his colleagues. Most of the time, however, he’d reject it but offer us invaluable feedback on the story.

When I think back to the relationships I built with the cybersecurity media, the greatest value I got from those relationships was in those rejections. Instead of not hearing back or getting a curt response, my “media friendlies” would often graciously offer feedback.

That insight often spurred us to make the adjustments in our outreach strategy that did lead to coverage, and most importantly, it helped me hone my instincts on what constitutes a newsworthy story.

Hone Your Newsworthy Instincts

During my time in Check Point, every so often, the company researchers came to the PR team with a similar story: they caught some repressive, authoritarian country’s intelligence agency breaking into their own citizens’ mobile phones, installing surveillance spyware without anybody knowing.

At first glance, it seemed like we had something: a “scary” country caught in the act of doing some scary things. Off we went, emailing and calling reporters about this breaking news.

Those stories went nowhere. Our media contacts — those kind enough to offer feedback — all said the same thing: it’s not news that a brutal dictatorship would spy on its own people. Our new research was just reinforcing an existing narrative. It wasn’t newsworthy.

Developing an inner sense of newsworthiness — being able to “think like a reporter” — is crucial in PR. It goes beyond being analytical and data driven, and beyond being a “student of the game” (ie consuming a lot of news, pattern matching, noticing what’s getting picked up and getting placed on the leading chyron or the front page). It’s an instinct you need to build and hone.

There’s a cliche about newsworthiness that goes something like, “dog bites man, that’s not a story. Man bites dog… now THAT’S a story.”

PR people reading this article are groaning right now because that quote is hammered in our heads, but for good reason: it’s a good mental model for developing this instinct. Our brains are wired to make sense of our chaotic, complicated, complex world by weaving a simplified, coherent narrative on how everything works. When something seems to violate that simplicity, our brains rationalize it away.

An effective news story peels away at those rationalizations and shakes up that simplification in pursuit of the truth. When you pitch a story, hone in how you’re chipping away at a big rationalization. If your story is based on your company’s latest research/data/insights, what does the data show in relation to our assumptions? If it simply confirms an assumption we already have, can it offer new details on why things are the way they are?

Again, you won’t always have blockbuster research or an industry-bending announcement. You also need something consistent, sustainable, and independently sourced. You need a thought leadership program.

Ongoing Thought Leadership Is PR’s Passive Income

Most companies, from my experience, are already in the habit of putting out content in the voice of their executives.

The PR team’s playbook, generally, involves submitting bylines and op-eds for publication while pitching those executives as spokespeople as an “expert comment” for a tangentially related topic. The strategy almost always involves going directly to the media, much like any other story they’d be pitching, with the desired outcome of placement and publication.

I suggest another wrinkle to this strategy. Get your thought leaders on Medium, Quora, and LinkedIn.

The same 600 word op-ed that you would have submitted to a trade publication can easily be reformatted to a Medium/LinkedIn article or a Quora answer. High-quality content can actually “catch fire” here and go viral, as readers are not just “consuming” it like they would on a news website… they’re actually engaging, sharing, “liking” the content.

If you’re successful and your posts do gain traction, you now have metrics to measure the impact of your executives’ voice. When you have to pitch your spokesperson — say, for a speaking opportunity, expert comment, or an op-ed — you can say something like, “our VP of Product is actually Quora’s top writer in this industry and has 20K followers on Medium. Check out her viral LinkedIn post on why she always asks the same three questions in every interview.”

Getting to that level will take time and effort. You need to maintain a solid cadence for the algorithm to really notice you, and you need to keep your content engaging, personal, and high-quality. You’ll never fully be able to predict if a particular piece will go viral, but you can maximize the chances by frequently posting and engaging with other users.

It’s worth it, because Medium/Quora/LinkedIn offer an excellent way to create “passive income” for your PR program. They’ll strengthen your usual pitches, and you never know — journalists have been known to check Medium/Quora/LinkedIn for story ideas.

Conclusion: Beyond Strategy and Tactics

Even if I had a time machine to send this Medium article to my younger self, and my younger self followed all this advice… I don’t think it would have changed the most important part of working in public relations.

Strategy, approach, roadmaps… none of that beats the grind of getting out there and getting in touch with reporters. Developing that trust takes time. There’s no growth hack around it. Everything I’ve said so far will get you from point A to point B much faster, but there’s no shortcuts or hyperloops. The most well-thought out strategy for a particular media campaign will fall flat if the effort and execution isn’t there.

There’s a lot of elbow grease that goes into a successful PR career, a lot of “inefficient” hours spent hoping to make contact. I had to email, call, DM on social media, and got to events in order to really build those relationships.

It takes a mix of tenacity, persistence, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and a good sense of humor to really “make it” in PR. When I think back to my time in PR — not to say that I’d never go back — I think that’s the greatest lesson I learned. I’m grateful for that experience and I hope to keep paying it forward.

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