7 ways ESPN gets better coverage without press releases

You’re tired of writing them. You can’t stand the approval process. There must be a better way, right? Correct. Just check out ESPN’s successful use of videos, images and brand journalism.

ESPN brand journalism

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Say it ain’t so.

Don’t tell me your honchos are demanding yet another press release that every journalist is going to spike unread.

If your executives insist on cranking out product-plugging paragraphs of puffery, pull a page from ESPN’s playbook.

In a new Ragan Training session, Molly Mita, a senior publicist at ESPN, calls upon PR pros to “Reinvent the press release through creative content and storytelling.” The secret is to create content that people will share on social media and reporters will eagerly gobble up.

The trouble with press releases, Mita says, is that the writing, revision and approval process is incredibly time consuming, and you often end up with little to show for your work.

The process and end product, she says, are “very tiring—a lot of suffering for, often, little results.”

Mita explains how ESPN gets its message out through more creative means.

“Creating videos makes bloggers’ and journalists’ jobs easier, and that in turn makes our jobs easier,” Mita says. “When we send them videos or compelling images, they want to tell that story.”

Here are tips for moving beyond standard, boring press releases:

1. Try a video.

Last spring ESPN produced a “SportsCenter All-Access” program that took viewers for a real-time look at creating a sports program. The question was how to push the concept of a behind-the-scenes show through a press release.

As the PR team discussed the matter, someone suggested, “How about we make a video about making a press release?”

The video spoofs the obstacles PR pros face when trying to get a press release written, including egoistical subjects who think primarily about boosting themselves. ESPN on-air talent played themselves in the video short.

Anchor Michael Eaves says, “We really want to put that across that America’s favorite sports anchor, Michael Eaves, will be on the show.”

Adds fellow anchor Elle Duncan, “What about God’s gift to anchoring, Elle Duncan?”

This press release, “as crazy as it sounds, got so many results,” Mita says. Not only did journalists notice, PR people contacted her to tell her they loved it.

SC All-Access – The Making of a Release from ESPN Visual Communications on Vimeo.

2. Take people backstage.

Sports fans (and your organization’s customers and stakeholders) are well aware of your public face. What just might grab their attention is to take them backstage. Before a Yankees-Red Sox game in August, ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza guided viewers behind the scenes for a look at the press area of Boston’s Fenway Park.

“I love the fact that you get the open-air feel when calling a game,” she says. “Pretty cool.”

“It’s just a great way of getting your message out there and to get people to pay attention,” Mita says.

3. Use brand journalism.

How many times, Mita asks, have you pitched a reporter with a great story to tell, only to be ignored or told it’s a no-go. “How do you go and tell your bosses that?”

ESPN created a platform to publish just such stories: ESPN Front Row. It’s filled with newsy stories. One piece features a World Series MVP’s battle against bullying, another promotes an upcoming story on a Purdue Boilermakers fan who is battling cancer.

“It doesn’t feel like that official press release with fake quotes,” Mita says.

The results have been phenomenal. ESPN was often met with a “no, thanks” when it pitched stories through press releases and phone calls to reporters.

On the other hand, “we post it in a story on ESPN Front Row, and oftentimes they take that and just put it on their website,” Mita says.

She cites an example in The Big Lead: “Here’s what ESPN’s new BottomLine will look like.” The stories link to ESPN’s website, driving traffic there.

“Hey, that’s fine with me,” Mita says.

4. Create a selfie video.

Yes, your Big Cheese is busy. No, tapping out fake quotes on his or her behalf is not going to win you friends among influential bloggers or in TV and newspaper newsrooms.

What might get their attention is something livelier: A video selfie from your principal or expert. When ESPN’s Jen Lada agreed to a contract extension, the PR team had her shoot a quick video of herself.

“Rather than a quote talking about how excited she was to remain with ESPN, she took a little selfie video on set of our morning show getup talking about how much fun she’s having and what it means to her,” Mita says. “And that got embedded in multiple stories.”

Jen Lada Signs New Deal With ESPN from ESPNFrontRow on Vimeo.

5. Create a ‘social card.’

Go figure. If you make content that’s easily shareable, it’s more likely to be shared. ESPN frequently produces “social cards” that get widespread retweets and embeds, as when Dan Le Batard and Jon “Stugotz” Weiner signed multiyear agreements to remain with the network. They’re easy to make, and reporters and fans like them.

“Nowadays when people ask about a press release, we say, ‘What about a social card?’” Mita says.

6. Do A/B testing.

When former Major League Baseball slugger Alex Rodriguez joined ESPN, the PR team tried two versions of a tweet promoting his presence. One tweet was just words; the other included a picture “where he’s looking at you right in the eye,” Mita says.

The image version’s 4,500 engagements swamped the 1,900 engagements for the text-only tweet.

“Would you think that people were going to retweet a press release hundreds of times, ‘like’ something thousands of times, if it was just a bunch of words?” Mita says. “No way.”

7. Get creative with gifs.

“There’s so many fun ways to get messages out there, and I love this one,” Mita says.

As a wide receiver for the NFL Giants, Victor Cruz was known for his end zone cha-cha after he scored. When ESPN signed him up, PR saw publicity gold in the move.

“We asked him to do his signature move in the hallway at ESPN and captured it there,” Mita says. “We did that from ESPNPR. We’ve become content creators for the whole company now.”

The gif was easy to create and got tons of engagement. The NFL shared it, as did Cruz.

“There’s so many different ways just to put that out there,” Mita says. “And it doesn’t just have to be with video, because in today’s world, it’s just visuals that grab our attention.”

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