Ask a Journalist – Sam Whitmore

01/16/2020 - Lori Bertelli

Sam Whitmore is the owner of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey. Sam worked as a reporter, news editor, editor-in-chief and editorial director of PC Week, then as vice-president, integrated media for ZD.

Q: Can you give us a short overview of your career as a reporter/EIC and now?

I started as a cub reporter at Ziff-Davis’s PC Week in 1984 and worked my way up the masthead, becoming EIC and eventually a company VP. I quit ZD in 1998 to start a business dedicated to helping tech PR and tech journalists understand each other better.

Q: What do you see as important areas-of-focus for PR professionals in 2020 and beyond?

“Publicist” PR pros will need two additional skill sets in the 2020s in order to stay above water. One will be clear understanding of editorial analytics—from time-on-site to engagement to social shares—and pitch stories and video segments with those KPIs in mind, meaning, what are the ingredients that resonate with audiences, and how can pitches best address them? Most PR pitches today are built around key messages, which may make the client happy but are all too often tone-deaf to readers, listeners and viewers.

They also will need to understand the role of AI in content creation, less for pitching than for continued success in “owned media” operations. AI will help comms pros create rough drafts and narratives with no greater effort than typing a sentence or two into AI-powered software called a “language model.” Your readers might want to research “GPT-2”—a powerful language model funded by Microsoft—to see what’s already possible.

PR agencies that currently make good money creating content for clients will have no choice but to master AI-driven content creation—to stay a step ahead—lest their clients reduce agency spending and take content creation in-house.

Q: In your recent webinar, you discussed editorial impact vs. editorial performance–can you give us a short overview of what you mean?

PR pros traditionally judge edit in terms of newsiness and insight: is something a “good story” or not? Does it make the reporter seem smart and well-connected? Will a rival reporter feel scooped, or motivated to advance the story in some way? All this is “inside baseball” and I refer to that as “editorial impact.”

I use “editorial performance” to refer to the impact on the readers, listeners or viewers: Did it share? Did it get reader comments? Did it generate an audience for weeks, not days or hours? Did readers scroll down through the entire article and spend ample time engaged in it? These are performance metrics, measuring whether the readers warmed to it. I refer to this as “editorial performance.”

Q: If you had to pick one, what’s the most important thing for PR profs to remember/apply to their day-to-day in 2020?

Allocate three hours per week for professional development, the way one would allocate time for physical exercise. Spend time reading, listening, viewing, talking to peers, learning a bit of SEO… the specifics matter less than the investment you make in becoming a better professional version of you.

Q: What are you reading now? What do you do in your down time?

Reading The Fifth Domain, to better understand cybersecurity threats—what is real and what isn’t. Down time… I do a two-hour radio program twice a week on a small local FM station here in eastern Maine. There’s nothing like music.