If you work in media relations today, and you’re having a hard time getting coverage for your news, you’re doing something wrong. Journalists exist to write about news. If you have a legitimate news story, you shouldn’t have a hard time getting coverage. When I reflect on the 15 years I’ve been doing some aspect of media relations as part of my job, I can’t think of a single instance when I had a hard time getting coverage for news.
When I have had problems getting coverage—though I didn’t realize it at the time—it was because the story wasn’t actually newsworthy, or because I was talking to the wrong journalists. The purpose of this post is to help you figure this stuff out much sooner than at the 15-year mark in your career.
First, are you talking to the right journalists?
Who covers your news? Which reporters write the most about the topics related to what you do? You should know who they are off the top of your head. If you don’t, start there. Subscribe to the publications they write for. Read the stuff they write. It takes only a couple of minutes a day to do this, and you’ll quickly find that you know exactly whom to talk to when news about your organization bubbles to the surface.
The key here—and you’ve heard it before—is to do your research. Of all the best media relations professionals I’ve worked with, every single one of them did their homework. They’re not magically gifted in media relations (though that could have something to do with it). Rather, they know how to build a target list that makes the most sense for the news they’re pitching on a regular basis. They understand the limitations of their news and that not everything is cut out for the front page of the biggest U.S. newspapers.
Once you home in on who the most important journalists are in your industry, it’s up to you to get on their radar. You can do this through regular communication and networking—actually getting to know them. Don’t get in touch with journalists only when you’re pitching a story. Provide them with tips throughout the year when you come across information that’s of interest to them—even if, especially if, it’s not related to your organization.
They’ll quickly start to value you as a source—and they just might call you the next time they’re working on a story. The trick is to get yourself inserted into their Rolodex or whatever “trusted source” file they use. Again, it’s born out of mutual respect for each other—your job is to demonstrate that you understand and follow their coverage. If you send them something off topic—something that has nothing to do with the content they produce—you lose.
This may sound like pie in the sky to some of you that have been working in media relations for a long time, but I can assure you, it’s not. When I’ve practiced what I preach, it’s always worked. I’m currently working in mobile banking and payments. Almost every day a journalist contacts our CEO to comment on a story—and we get a ton of coverage as a result. That should be your goal—become such a trusted, reliable source that the PR opportunities come to you with minimal effort.
Second, do you have a newsworthy story?
As employees, it’s easy to get distracted by the people we report to. Your CEO or team leader isn’t always the best person to determine the quality of news. To them, more often than not, everything is newsworthy and a good fit for The New York Times. Remember the stuff you learned about journalism in school? What makes a good news story? Your topic should be timely and relevant for the audience of the outlet you’re pitching. Even if your story is timely and relevant to the outlet you’re pitching, it might not be a fit for the reporter you think writes about that stuff.
Sometimes newsworthiness is merely a factor of how you package the news in your pitch. You have to adapt the pitch to each journalist and outlet. Does this take more time? Yes. Is it worth the effort? Yes. If you don’t have the time to do this with every outlet, use the 80/20 principle to focus your time where it will make the greatest impact (which 20 percent of outlets will produce 80 percent of the results you’re looking for?). This could be a 90/10 or even a 99/1 split, but you get the idea. To help you adapt your pitch to the right journalist or outlet, here are some tips for refining your pitches:
- Localization. Is your story not a fit for national news, but a good fit locally? Get strong local coverage in the outlet with the widest coverage. If your company is hiring 20 new employees this year, it’s not a fit for The Wall Street Journal. If you’re hiring 2,000 employees this year due to a big contract you just landed, it might be. Find local angles, and you’ll see your placement success go up.
- Timeliness. If your story has a time element to it, you need to act fast. The best example I can think of here is when you try to ride the coattails of a story in the mainstream. Let’s say you work for an allergist or a company that makes a product that relieves the effects of high pollen. How can you capitalize on news coverage of record high pollen counts in the Southeast to get your client on the evening news? First, you need to have the right reporters on speed dial. If you want to read more on this aspect, check out David Meerman Scott’s book, “Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas Into Breaking News Stories and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.” The book is chock full of great case studies on how PR professionals have scored incredible coverage using this tactic.
- Numbers. When was the last time you saw an infographic in the outlets that cover your industry? Exactly. Journalists love numbers. Pretty numbers are even better. You’re probably sitting on a bunch of recent facts and statistics about your industry that you could package as an infographic to support your news. Not only will the infographic help you break through the clutter of competing pitches, but it also provides the journalist with a potential visual to use with his or her story. There is way too much “fluff” in a lot of the press releases and pitches that reporters receive day in and day out. When you say it with numbers, you separate your news from the pack. I recently got coverage for a story on the growth of lacrosse in our county. I didn’t tell the reporter, “Lacrosse is growing a lot down here.” I gave him specific numbers on the growth of lacrosse in our area, and I tied it to regional and national trends (again, real numbers). I got a call back immediately.
- Seasonality. This probably isn’t a new tactic, but for some of you it might be. What seasonal events create PR opportunities for you? Right now, we’re in the early days of spring. We’re a few days away from April Fools’ Day. Easter is coming. March Madness is drawing to a close. Summer will be here before you know it, and kids will be out of school. Then they’ll go back to school. I could go on and on, but there’s always some recurring event you can tie your story to and create a more newsworthy pitch. There’s always some special “Day” or “Week” or “Month” you can tie into. From “Talk Like a Pirate Day” to “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” you can find an endless array of tie-in ideas from “Chase’s Calendar of Events.” It’s a pricey book, but no PR agency office is complete without one. A word of caution though: The themed-events thing is a little overdone. Try to find unique ones to tie into, and don’t make it the focus of the pitch; rather, use it as a tie-in to make your pitch more timely.
- Bouncebacks. What do you do when a reporter writes a great story about your industry and leaves your company out? Do you ignore it and take the abuse from your superiors? Do you write a scathing letter, lambasting the reporter—asking them how they could have possibly overlooked you? No, you educate them on your organization and the value you could bring to the table on future stories. Start by acknowledging that the story they wrote was on target—in some cases, it might be appropriate to highlight some elements that you felt were left out. Journalists like to get reader feedback in most cases. It’s OK to share your side of the story. Even if it doesn’t get you in this article, they’ll think of you next time—if you’re polite and professional.
- Name-dropping. If your story is related to well-known organizations or people, get that stuff in the first paragraph of your pitch. Though it’s not a guarantee of coverage, the better known the players are in your news story, the more likely you will break through the filters. If you don’t have any big names tied to your news, how can you make that happen?
- Emulate success. Pick apart the outlets you read. This goes with the targeting research, but become an analyst of the news. It’s not very hard to figure out which stories were generated from a PR pitch. How did the other companies get included in the story? If you start to analyze the news, you can start to identify the formula for how coverage happens with each outlet-and each reporter. From there, you can develop strategic approaches to getting your organization or experts included in the mix.
The final point I’ll make in this post is that you should surround yourself with peers who “get it.” Don’t learn from the telesales PR people that do whatever they can to try to jam a story down a reporter’s throat. That rarely works. You don’t want to be a “smile and dial” PR person—you’ll get burned out fast. The mentors you’re looking for are the people who land the mainstream press consistently, the ones who do their homework. They know how to target the right reporter, at the right outlet and at the right time to produce publicity miracles. You can learn the most from these people—I know I have.
To review, you shouldn’t have a hard time getting coverage for the news you’re pitching. If you do your homework and tailor your pitch to the needs and interests of each reporter, you’ll find success. I know some of you will roll your eyes at this post, thinking to yourself, “I don’t have time to do media relations this way.”
To you, I say then you’re wasting your time every day on tactics that no longer work in media relations. If you want to get coverage for the organizations or clients you represent, this is the only tried and true way to find long-term success.
A version of this post first appeared on Journalistics.