PR people in many cases are borderline intolerable. The few that are well-received generally position themselves as utilities. They're able to do research and help reporters get stories written that aren't necessarily about their clients. If they are, it's in a nascent, industry-relevant manner--one that positions the client in the industry versus lauding them with attention.
Play the long game.
This is the long game of PR--one that's about relationship-building over instant results. Sometimes it's a very simple helping hand. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and author of Without Their Permission, says running the PR and marketing for the travel site Hipmunk was as much about establishing a brand (and about his usefulness) as it was about getting coverage.
"It was important to just be a resource on travel and introducing [reporters] to people in the industry who'd know the right people...sometimes it was just a case of getting [Hipmunk CEO] Adam on the phone with reporters to talk about clever travel hacks," Ohanian told me. His strategy worked--Hipmunk CEO Adam Goldstein and Hipmunk have been written-about and featured in hundreds of places, including The New York Times, CNN and The Today Show, as well as being named one of the 50 websites that make the web great.
Being useful rather than "successful" makes reporters realize that you care about more than a cheap score. You're not a leech--you're useful. So that email you send to them about your client will have a greatly increased chance of being read. In concert with actually working out what they want and giving it to them, you'll make long-term contacts who will want to work with you.
Make introductions and reporters will keep you on their radar.
Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out and advisor to companies like NASA and Saudi Aramco, takes it a step further. The company connects reporters with potential sources on everything from technology to healthcare, and he recommends not even thinking about yourself--simply introduce the right people, and things will go perfectly. "In the end, being the guy who makes the introductions is the easiest way in the world to become useful to almost everyone. If you're the one people call to meet other people, you're always in the network, and always in the connection. You're the go-to person when in need, and that's a great place to be."
If a reporter you're speaking with is working on a story and he or she talks to you about it, help them if you can. Even if it takes up 10 minutes of research time, you're helping them out. It's not a trick, or a sly way to get in their good graces--you simply prove yourself as someone with a particular skill. Your general day-to-day should include reading constantly and learning the entire landscape of what you're doing. If there's something in there that's useful to someone, reach out.
Don't wait until you can get something out of it. You’ll develop a reputation as a good person who’s good at your job and that’s priceless.
When reporters reach out on Twitter, answer them.
It's also possible to be useful just by following reporters on Twitter. Your average reporter will probably, at some point, ask a question his or her followers a question. Answer it. This is the slow-to-burn power of a well-kept friendship. The key is to be useful but not invasive--be respectful of them personally and professionally.
This all may feel a tad out of the ordinary. Being in PR conditions you to seek results, to “brand” a client or yourself. Be smarter than that: Work hard to make connections with others and bridge the gaps between those people. It could be a venture capitalist with a potential investment, a client with a good coffee bar, or a reporter with a great story that isn't necessarily yours.
Don’t forget to help other PR reps.
Some of my greatest connections have been either bolstered or created by helping out. My friend Phillip Broughton invented a 40x concentrated coffee that diabetics can drink (pure coffee, with no additives, actually tastes sweet, even if it isn’t). I've happily sent at least 15 reporters coffee (out of my own pocket) not because I thought, "Hey, this is their kind of thing." As a hobby of Phil's (his day job is being a health physicist at University of California at Berkeley, handling radiation-producing machines), the Black Blood of the Earth is not something he needs PR for.
For reporters, though, it's great. In a sea of vapid, over-valued startup garbage, a mega-coffee brewed by a radiation expert is compelling both as a story and as a product. Does it mean they'll love me forever? Hardly. But it proves I give a damn.