< Back to Blog

So much has changed this year.* Which is why I had to change some of my materials as I prepared to train new spokespeople this month for a long-time client.

Many of the fundamental principles of media relations remain the same: Always return a reporter’s call, even if it is to decline the interview. Understand the audience and constraints for each outlet and tailor your messages accordingly. Never say “no comment.” (If you don’t know why, email me and I’ll be happy to explain.)

But what has changed is significant. Let’s start with the stories themselves. Since March, there has been scant coverage about anything not related to COVID-19, the economy, racial justice or climate change – and for good reason. (Even reporting on the U.S. presidential campaign almost always includes one or more of these four angles.) Each of these are outsized stories that have massive implications for the future of our country and the planet. Put together, there is very little bandwidth to consider much else. So unless your story is related to one of these four angles, you have very little chance of receiving attention right now.

(That said, I have started to see more variety in media coverage this month. It felt strangely comforting to read about the redesign of Girl Scout uniforms, for example. I suspect the U.S. news cycle will find room for more trend and product-related stories as this novel virus becomes less novel in our minds – perhaps after the election in November.)

The interview itself has changed too. In-person meetings with journalists have been on the wane for years now. But broadcast interviews still took place in-studio more often than not, and print interviews were usually phone calls. In 2020, everything is about Zoom, or another video conferencing tool.

I now train spokespeople to use Zoom for any medium, and the new challenges that presents. I used to coach people to stand up and gesture, even pace, during a phone interview because that energy would help animate their voice and reduce nervousness. Sometimes I would be in the same room during a phone interview and help my client answer questions by writing notes. But on Zoom, a print interview has all the added considerations of a TV interview, even if you are not being recorded: you have to stay in frame, not look at any notes, and be mindful of how and where you look.

Spokespeople today are suddenly amateur stylists and makeup artists as well as studio directors. Camera placement and angle is now on them. (I advise positioning computer cameras at eye level, and looking directly at the camera, not the computer screen. Sometimes turning off or minimizing video screens can help.) So is every technical aspect, from lighting to sound to signal. And last but not least, set design. 2020 has been the year of scrutinizing other people’s bookshelves. I encourage clients to pick a simple backdrop so their words don’t compete with their décor for attention.

But one of the biggest changes I have witnessed this year is something more profound and unsettling: Americans’ growing distrust of and antagonism toward the media.

People are often nervous before interacting with the media – especially if it is their first time. But in my 17 years of training executives and spokespeople, the most common feeling before a media interview has been one of excitement. Getting tapped to speak to the media has typically been seen as an honor, even sexy.

I don’t sense that same eagerness among my trainees any more. Rather, people are looking to me to help guard them against a perceived attack from the media.

New research this month from Gallup and the Knight Foundation supports this shift, reporting that most Americans have lost confidence in the media to deliver the news objectively. More than half (54%) of the study’s 20,000 respondents said they believed reporters misrepresent the facts, and a whopping 84% said the media is to blame for the political division in the U.S.

I have long taught my clients techniques to help reduce misquoting and make sure reporters understand and include our key messages. But this new level of skepticism goes beyond the belief that reporters sometimes make mistakes.

I used to share a famous quote during my trainings: “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” It was an old-timey way to underscore the futility (and idiocy) in fighting with a journalist. But this quote doesn’t land with my audiences any more. They are too used to seeing TV anchors and their guests yell over each other, and no longer believe that the media necessarily enjoy the last word.

I am concerned that the pandemic is only going to make matters worse. As it is, journalists’ deadlines seem to be getting tighter and there is less patience all around. We are not the only ones working at home and juggling multiple demands; I have heard of more than one instance of a producer taping an interview from their locked bathroom while young children pound on the door.

And there is little time or space to build meaningful relationships with our media counterparts. While in-person interviews had been declining for years, in many markets and in certain industries, PR pros still met regularly with reporters to flesh out story ideas and share information on background. These meetings are now obsolete.

So despite my play on Gabriel García Márquez’s celebrated novel in the title of this post, this is not a love story. Or maybe it is? As a former journalist myself, the current state of affairs breaks my heart. But I continue to hold out hope that we can work through this rough patch and heal this vital relationship. For our democracy. For our civil discourse. For our humanity.

*Speaking of change, I made a big change in my personal life this year: I left New York City. It became increasingly difficult this spring to live and work in the 55-story Brooklyn skyscraper I called home. But fortunately, my work with Davis Communication Strategies remains exactly the same. As ever, I am grateful for my clients and teammates and look forward to continued collaboration in 2020 and beyond.