So, you think you have a good story to tell.
Do you? What makes you think so? What makes your story stand out, why are you different, why should the media care?
A lot goes into media relations, a lot more than most people think. Granted, there are slam dunks like helping a new retailer open a location in your town or announcing the new CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But even newsmakers like that require a great deal of work.
Now more than ever, earned media is just that – earned.
One of the reasons for that is simple: there are more of us (PR folks) than them (journalists). Especially as newsrooms continue to shrink before our eyes.
Consider that, as freelancer Mike Rosenberg points out, there are nearly five public relations professionals to every reporter. Whereas newspapers seemingly used to have a beat reporter for just about everything, these days, journalists juggle several beats. And some beats, like movies or music, have shrunk or even gone extinct in some local markets.
Another reason media relations is tough is because it typically takes time, patience, more time and more patience.
Reporters and editors are inundated with hundreds of pitches, ideas, greetings and who knows what else from PR professionals every day. Every day. Clay Risen, an opinion editor at The New York Times, told us that he and his fellow editors get several hundred submissions a day. As we inundate reporters and editors with our ideas, it’s quite possible that we have a good story that simply wasn’t good enough that day, week or even month.
So, how do you make your story stand out?
For starters, let’s start with the story itself. All too often, businesses, CEOs or nonprofits believe what they are doing is really newsworthy. Look in the mirror. Is it really? Have you seen your peers in the press for similar things? Have you seen similar stories in The New York Times or Fast Company? This isn’t meant to sound overly pessimistic, but the reality is that if it is a good story, it has a good shot of getting coverage.
What makes a good story?
Something new and different often is a good recipe. Someone making an impact. A company with a great back story. Something unique (be careful going overboard describing yourself as unique if you do many of the same things as your competitor…journalists despise jargon and exaggeration).
To elaborate, here are a few examples of some of the good stories we’ve enjoyed working with:
- A small, gourmet peanut butter maker who makes the product out of his mom’s kitchen and is seeing impressive growth
- A high-end dress shirt favored by many celebrities from a company started by a pair of businessmen who had no fashion experience before learning how to make shirts
- A guy who traded his million-dollar company to start a nonprofit that helps storm-ravaged areas
- A company focusing on finding jobs for the previously underserved part-time and hourly worker community.
Setting the right expectations
Once you determine what your story is, it’s crucial to set realistic expectations for your story.
For years, we used to cringe when we’d talk with prospective clients, and they’d mention they’d like to be on The Today Show. That’s easier said than done, although our team did, in fact, land the peanut butter maker several mentions back in the day.
Again, looking in the mirror can be helpful. When was the last time you saw someone like yourself doing an interview on The Today Show? Or in The Wall Street Journal? Or even your local paper? This is the time to check your ego and ask again: What makes us different?
It’s also important to understand exactly what the goal is and how to attain it. Our peanut butter maker never appeared on The Today Show, but his product was mentioned a handful of times in various segments over a couple years. Each time, it was part of a larger segment that included other brands. If our goal and expectation was truly to have the product featured (by itself), we would have failed. Similarly, taking a New York Times-or-bust approach on an opinion likely isn’t going to be the best strategy since you’ll be in competition with several hundred other thought leaders, some of whom have led major corporations or even nations.
Our way of working with the media
Part of setting expectations comes with understanding the media a bit.
One of the loudest criticisms of the PR industry is that we barrage reporters with stuff we hope will somehow stick, most of the time not taking the time to consider or research whether or not the targeted reporters might have even the least bit of interest in what we send.
With fewer and fewer reporters and editors, it’s paramount now more than ever to research before hitting send on a pitch. When was the last time the targeted reporter wrote about a company like yours? When the reporter quotes experts, are they from well-known companies, or do they ever speak to CEOs like yours? Does the reporter even cover the same beat as the one you’re pitching? Reporters and editors get hundreds of emails a day from companies like yours or PR firms like ours: They don’t have time to read stuff that doesn’t concern them.
Take the time, do the research. That’s the first real step after coming to the conclusion that you have a good idea to pitch. See what they’ve written. Take a look at their social accounts to see what they might be working on or what they share. Interact with them, where appropriate, by sharing stories with your contacts on social media. In short, you’re trying to find the right person to share your story and possibly start a professional relationship with that right person. Referencing the tweet that they just spent a week in Elmira might be a nice ice-breaker when you share with them that you grew up in Elmira.
Tips for successful media relations
Other quick tips on pitching a reporter include:
- Keep your pitch short and sweet
- Avoid jargon at all costs…say it in plain English
- Avoid blasting hundreds of reporters at a time in an impersonal way – chances are, you’re not a company like Amazon, Google or Walmart, who actually have hundreds of reporters watching their every move
- Personalize your note by referencing you’ve seen their work and done your homework
- Keep your pitch short and sweet
- Don’t call the reporter asking if they got your email (unless it truly is breaking/important news)
- Don’t send attachments until asked
- Don’t send large photos that could jam their inbox (to be safe, if you have to send something large, keep it under 1 MB or risk going to a dreaded spam folder never to be seen again)
- Pitch during morning hours, preferably avoiding Mondays and Fridays; remember reporters often are meeting deadlines in the afternoon hours; don’t call in the mid-to-late afternoon unless you absolutely have to
You may have noticed a redundancy in that list: Keep your pitch short and sweet.
Think of it like speed dating, not that this writer has ever done that sort of thing. But picture 50 ladies and gentleman in a hotel ballroom all dressed to the nines and ready to meet their match. Each has a minute or two to make an impression. Now, remember that your email is among some 300 emails (or more!) from companies like yours or PR firms like ours all starving for attention. Brevity is king. If you don’t pique the reporter’s interest in the first couple of sentences, your note likely is destined to be deleted, no matter if Hemingway wrote your press release.
Be patient. Sometimes you’ll get a note back. Most times you won’t. Follow-up notes after a few days or a week or so are perfectly fine. Following up daily isn’t advised. We’ve had experiences when a reporter has contacted us about an idea we sent months and even years before. If reporters like what you sent, they will let you know or file it away for later. If you don’t hear back after a couple attempts, it’s time to move on. Research another reporter or editor; reach out to a different outlet.
But don’t give up.
Rejection is all just part of the job. You’ve got a good story to tell…