The Power of ‘Porch Sitting’ | Inside Higher Ed

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Throughout my over 20 years working in public relations, I’ve often been asked, “What is the key to promoting a good story?” I was reminded of this question again a couple of weeks ago as I was meeting with a soon-to-be graduate to discuss life as a public relations professional.

As I told him, topic, timing, appeal and personality are all in the mix, however, the main ingredient is cultivating substantial, genuine relationships. The word “relationship” is part of our job title, after all. You know, public relations, media relations, community relations, etc. In fact, relationships are more important today than ever before.

Unfortunately, especially during this pandemic, with busy schedules and high demands, building relationships is often pushed aside by work that we feel must be done now. This can’t happen. Sure, there might be occasions when the really good ideas are brought to our door, but more than likely we’ll need to go looking for them.

What this really means is that it is critical to have dialogue with our institutional stakeholders (reporters, faculty, administration, students, staff, etc.). These are not conversations just about their work inside an institution, but also what they are interested in outside work. What drives them? Why do they do what they do?

So, how do you do this, particularly when there are so many other important things swirling around you? It’s all about time. For me, that means sectioning off parts of every day or maybe even an entire day geared toward connecting with people. This is protected time where other work, unless there is a true emergency, cannot interfere. This is time used to talk to folks, to set up future appointments and to research future connections.

Having a basic understanding of what people are working on gives you an entry point to a conversation. Many mornings in our office are spent scouring journals, newspapers and press releases looking for new sources and new reporters to connect with. In the past, these connections would be made face-to-face. The pandemic does not really allow for that, but video and voice calls have proven to be good alternatives. The point of these “in-person” connections is to get as much real-time, personal information as you can.

In small-town vernacular, these meetings are “porch sitting,” a time to sit with someone and listen before jumping into a hard sell. They indicate a willingness to care about a person, not just what they can do for you.

People need to know that we care about them enough to take the time to form genuine trust. This is especially true today. People need someone to trust. If people trust you, they’ll be more likely to answer the phone when you call or to open your emails.

Right about now, you may be saying to yourself, OK, relationships are important, but how can I justify the time needed when there is so much other work that needs to be done? The answer is simple—cultivating relationships has the potential to make other aspects of your job easier.

Strong relationships can help your pitch rise to the top of a reporter ’s inbox. If a reporter moves to a new position or publication, they’ll be more likely to tell you. If you’re a trusted contact, a reporter may share your story pitch with a colleague if it’s not the right fit for them. A strong connection can provide important feedback if your story pitch is off the mark.

On the internal side, strong relationships can help you get information more quickly. Contacts will be more likely to come to you with ideas, research, op-eds and student perspectives and can share what their colleagues are working on.

Too often we lose sight of what public relations is. It is more than just telling people about things; public relations is sharing. To effectively do this, the public relations person must be the translator of ideas. We must strive for clarity by listening, questioning, knowing and forming trust before the translation works effectively. To do all of this properly, you need strong relationships.

Chris Stout is the president of Gehrung Associates.

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