The “Relationship” Fallacy in PR

When I hear people in PR talk about pitching, 9 times out of 10 it starts with “I have really good relationships with (insert unknowing journalist) at (insert reputable publication)”. While I can appreciate the fact that you once had a beer with Jon Swartz or had a glass of wine with Arik Hesseldahl, it means nothing in terms of your ability to produce a quality pitch that provides them value for writing a story, which is really what your job is supposed to be about - providing value!

While I would love to blame PR people individually for their failure, I cannot. There is a fallacy in the PR industry that “it’s all about relationships”. This is talked about by agencies, companies, investors, and beyond. I have legitimately been in interviews where companies are asking me, “Can you name some of the current relationships you have? And if so, can I check with them for a reference?”

That is not an exaggeration.

Now whether it is a candidate interviewing with a company or an agency trying to pitch a business, this should NOT be the focus of the conversation. Unfortunately though, a majority of people who are put in that awkward position end up blurting out names of people they may have worked with for ONE article 3+ years ago, which creates a false sense of security and proliferates this terrible ideology that relationships = coverage.

Providing Real Value

What should really happen in this situation is that the candidate, or agency, should show their ability to think. One of the most powerful tools in PR is knowledge and the ability to put together a valuable thought based on that knowledge. Instead of answering what relationships they have, or don’t have, they should be answering questions about how they would approach a specific piece of news. Or what trends are going on in the world around them that would make for valuable conversation in relation to said company.

The ability to think quickly and provide value in any situation is exponentially more important than being able to buy someone a free drink or treat them to dinner. (As a side note: If you’re incompetent, it will show, and that will probably be your first AND last drink with your “friend”)

When it comes to news and producing great articles it’s about being educated, doing your homework, and finding the right person to collaborate with. And that doesn’t happen just because of a “relationship”. There is due diligence involved - time spent on research, fully educating yourself about the information you have at hand, and finding out who will really be interested in it. Whether that is a “friend” or someone you’ve never worked with before, it is YOUR JOB as a PR professional to tell the right story to the appropriate journalist.

Stopping the Pretenders

A major reason this relationship fallacy continues, put simply, is that there are a lot of sub-par people in this industry who don’t take the time to master their craft and pretend that they’re good at their job. They hide behind relationships, name-drop, and simply cash checks by selling the thought of a company seeing their name in a headline. The amount of money some of these sub-par PR people are getting paid is a whole new conversation I won’t get into right now (thanks to all the VCs who handed out massive amounts of funding that has trickled down to these people).

What ends up happening here is that you have a bunch of PR people pretending that they can provide value. Instead of spending their time educating themselves and learning how to be a valuable PR professional, they are using Swarm and Twitter to try and stalk journalists and make “relationships” - which ends up providing very little value.

The only way to rectify this will be to shed light on those who are hiding behind these “relationships”. Dig deeper into what your PR professional, or agency, can offer. Don’t focus on who they know, focus on what they know, and how they can execute. If you ask the right questions and focus on what really matters, sub-par PR people will not be able to hide much longer. Here’s a quick checklist of what you should really care about:

  1. What kind of experience does the person/agency have in your specific industry? (ex: working on for Intel is much different than working for Slack)
  2. How does the person/agency approach product announcements vs. corporate announcements? (ex: a round of funding vs. a new product release)
  3. Does the person/agency have a healthy knowledge of relevant news on both the micro and macro level? (ex: knowing the headlines in WSJ/NYT AND the headlines on TechCrunch/VentureBeat)
  4. Does the person/agency have a social presence? (ex: active on Twitter/LinkedIn or any other relevant mediums your company uses)
  5. Can the person/agency hold a healthy conversation? (ex: simply be able to talk to you as a person and as a professional)

Have thoughts on The “Relationship” Fallacy? Leave something in the comments section and let’s chat… I love this topic and I am happy to keep it going. I can also be reached at or on Twitter at @ColinJordan!

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