I am most often contacted by people who want to hire me or people who 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 business card holder, organized alphabetically, so you always have quick access to your contacts’ phone numbers. 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 because they no longer had 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 that anybody can find the same contacts on about six different devices in as many seconds.

Jas Singh wrote about it 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, this is the 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 five years ago (or five minutes 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 what 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 in this rapidly changing digital age. And frankly, reusing media lists is one of my top No-Nos for PR professionals. Every pitch should be freshly crafted, along with the appropriate media list. Offering a client a stale list is like offering a 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 products, services, 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 earned major national news coverage based on research, timing, and relevance – not relationships. It was based on a mutual interest at a specific 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 as well.

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! I would love to hear your thoughts and make sure to add me to your Rolodex!

~ Jules

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