RolodexI am often contacted by people who either want to hire me or they have questions about the process of hiring a public relations person. There are usually many questions, but the one that gets me rattled and moves the conversation from a Q & A to a lecture is the inevitable question about wanting to find the person with the “golden Rolodex.”

For you youngsters, a Rolodex is what people used for organizing contacts in the old days – it’s a revolving card holder, organized alphabetically. Although, I checked the website, and apparently, people are still buying them, so maybe they are hip again. But back in Mad Men times, if you left or were fired, you would swoop your Rolodex off the desk and march off in a huff – leaving your company devastated without access to your precious contacts and you feeling slightly less panicked because you held the keys to the kingdom (your network) in your hands.

These days, I guess if we want to leave with a bit of drama and fanfare, we grab our laptops, but it hardly leaves the same impact because we all know you can find your contacts on about six different devices in as many seconds.

Jas Singh wrote about it recently on Linkedin in The Myth of the Transferable Rolodex:

“It makes so much sense – hire the person with the magic rolodex. The magic “black book”. Transferable clients. Golden relationships. That will move with the candidate and do whatever he or she says. Morning and Night. Instant Success. And we all live happy ever after….”

In PR, there is a myth of the Golden Rolodex. A shimmering, glossy desktop model, I imagine, bursting with key contacts at every major media outlet in the world – organized alphabetically, of course. I guess the myth has been sustained because non-PR folks want to believe like I continue to want to believe in Santa, that there is a magical quality to PR or at least a silver bullet that explains success. The dream is that if you hire the person with the right contacts, they can guarantee media results. They have The Golden Rolodex – all they have to do is call up their friends at any number of media companies and your organization will appear in the news outlets of choice.

But it doesn’t work that way. Pitching media is based on relationships, but those relationships are built on PR people providing relevant information, at the right time, to the right journalist. The idea that the journalist who loved my story idea 5 years ago will continue to write about everything I send their way into perpetuity is ridiculous.

Yes, connecting with lots of smart journalists is very useful to the PR professional. But more importantly, knowing how to find the right journalist, at the right time, is critical. I do not have to be friends with someone, or even have an existing relationship with them, if my story idea is targeted, timely, and relevant.

Blame Google, blame computers, blame Santa – however it happened, it just is not reasonable to assume that a long-amassed list of contacts will be useful, if even relevant. And frankly, reusing media lists is one of my top No-Nos for PR professionals. Every pitch should be crafted fresh. Offering a client a stale list is like offering my dinner guest a stale wine. “Oh, but I opened it last month and it was so fresh and relevant then!”

Now, there are certainly instances when journalists will rely on the same PR person over time – but that is usually for complex, ongoing pieces – which frankly is not what the vast majority of companies are looking to pitch. Let’s face it, for-profit companies mostly hire PR people to pitch product and company news, with some trend and analysis pieces on occasion. Which I love doing, but journalists are not dying for more product news – I am quite certain that they’re getting way more than they want.

When I think back to the major pieces I have pitched – LA Times, MSNBC, Golf, Women’s Day, San Francisco Chronicle – they were all covered by editors that I met when I pitched them the story that they covered. I got major national news coverage based on research, timing, and relevance – not relationships. It was based on a mutual exchange at a certain point in time, not an ongoing relationship. When I think of the minor pieces I have been included in – about 20 this year – those were all covered by bloggers and journalists that I met when I pitched them that story.

So, I don’t know if PR people are perpetuating this myth (agencies maybe?) or if business people and entrepreneurs just keep feeding the myth, but Dave Manzer over at PR over Coffee has it right:

“The dirty secret about PR these days is that WHO you know matters much less than WHAT you know. What’s more, there is so much staff movement in media outlets today that there’s a good chance who you knew yesterday at TechCrunch has been replaced by a total stranger.”

My advice: If you need good PR, hire someone who understands the process and can bring the art and science of media planning and pitching to your organization.

Cheers, and make sure to add me to your Rolodex!

~ Jules

6 thoughts on “The Myth of the PR Rolodex

  1. Thanks for your kind mention, Jules. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the rolodex argument from the competition I wouldn’t have to work anymore! Seriously, though, it’s a lazy approach to selling new clients on PR and, worse, it sets them up for eventual disappointment because no PR firm is able to deliver anything close to what is claimed when the “rolodex” pitch is introduced.

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    1. You bet, Dave! I agree, having been on the agency side, I know this is trotted out in new business development meetings all the time. I do think media relationships in general are important, but the ability to build relationships trumps a list of specific contact. I know…preaching to the choir!

      What I find interesting too is that hiring managers are approaching it the same way. They are hoping to fill a position with a golden rolodex, rather than a person who can build relevant relationships on behalf of the company. So besides agencies tooting the rolodex horn, HR is working under the impression that this is an appropriate method to determine the qualifications of a PR candidate. I’m flummoxed. It seems so obvious to me. Thanks for being here! ~ Jules

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    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful! The PR world of today can be kind of daunting, and knowledge of social media is a hard commodity to come by. Thanks for being here! ~Jules

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