Public Relations professionals have to craft their messaging with the mindset of a journalist, so it helps if they’ve already been one themselves. Max Winter sat down with Account Executive Sarah Cook over a virtual coffee to discuss how her experience in journalism has shaped her work in media relations and crisis communications.

Hey there, Sarah. Thanks for grabbing a (virtual) coffee with me! Can you share a little bit about your role here at Vehr Communications?

It’s a delight, as always, to connect with you. I joined the Vehr team in October 2018 as an account executive. I work with a variety of clients to support everything from media relations, media tracking, communications strategy, crisis communications, social media management, content development and more.

As a former journalist and now public relations professional, you’ve been on both sides of storytelling in the media. How has your approach to storytelling differed between the work you did as a journalist and the work you engage in at Vehr?

Working in TV news, I learned to keep my writing short, sweet and to the point. In some instances, you only had 15 or 20 seconds to tell your story.

As a public relations professional, sometimes your work calls for succinct writing, especially if you’re pitching the media, but other times, not so much. News releases, op-eds, newsletter articles, and more can require long-form content.

What do many PR professionals get wrong when it comes to their media relations strategy?

One of the worst things you can do is ignore the media when something is wrong, then later expect them to respond when you have something you want them to cover.

Challenges emerge, even within the best companies and organizations. Have a crisis communications plan in place that, based on the situation, will guide you on the appropriate approach. In most cases, you should respond to the media in some form, whether it’s a statement, interview or news conference.

Communicating during tough times builds trust and respect with your media contacts. It also enhances your chances of the media working with you in the future.

What makes a successful PR pitch? 

One of the most beneficial strategies is to target the right contacts for your particular story. There is an adage, “Fish where the fish are.” This holds true in media relations. Journalists receive countless emails a day. So, make sure you are contacting the right person the first time around. Do your research. Search the outlet’s website or utilize a media research tool (I prefer Cision).

A few years back, I shared some additional tips on the Vehr blog. You can read more here.

COVID-19 took up much of the news cycle in 2020 and the start of 2021, and rightfully so. But as our country recovers from the pandemic, the news cycle will inevitably become less transfixed on matters related to COVID-19. How are you keeping a pulse on the news cycle, and what advice do you have for professionals who aren’t sure whether it’s the right time yet to promote their brand?

News is 24/7. There’s always something big happening, whether it be locally, nationally or globally. So, if you are pitching, you are always going to be up against something else.

I make a point to routinely scan outlets in cities where I might be pitching, to know what’s in the headlines that day.

The trickiest part of media relations during the pandemic was determining how outlets were covering the news. And it certainly varied by market. Some stations were conducting Zoom interviews, while others were still doing in-person, but from a distance.

Pandemic or non-pandemic, determining whether to pitch ultimately comes down to one of the basics of public relations — do you have an interesting story to tell and are you sharing it with the right person?

You also are on the emerging leaders committee for IPREX, a global communication platform of which Vehr is a member. Can you talk a little bit about your role on that committee and how these partnerships have benefited Vehr?

While Vehr’s relationship with IPREX dates back several years, my personal involvement began in March 2020 when I attended the Emerging Leaders Conference in Boston. My involvement with has only grown since then. As you mentioned, I am a member of the IPREX emerging leaders committee which formed around June2020. Our group helped to launch the IPREX Academy, a nine-month leadership development program for emerging PR and marketing professionals at independent, partner agencies around the world. The inaugural class is currently going through the program and it’s exciting to see it unfold.

I work with professionals located around the country and globe, including Honolulu, Denver, Milwaukee, Dubai, Manchester and more. They bring unique perspectives and insights; several of our clients have benefited from the IPREX network when they have sought out on-the-ground agency support in specific cities. It’s truly a really great resource!

Last, but not least, what is your go-to coffee routine?

At home you will find me sipping on Simple Truth Organic instant coffee with a dash of Chobani vanilla creamer. Every so often I treat myself to Starbucks. My favorite is the Skinny Caramel Macchiato, venti, of course. A gal needs her caffeine!