PR: From the Newsroom Perspective

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If you want an effective public relations program, always put the cart before the horse. This seemingly backwards approach is the fastest way to get good media coverage. Instead of coming up with your message, then trying to jam it into a newsroom, you should first ask, What do journalists want? Then work backwards from there. You’ll be pleased with the results.

Not convinced? Let’s start with a little newsroom math. Most reporters get several hundred story pitches a day. They will usually write one of these stories, depending on its complexity and required length. That story will almost always be one that fits into their agenda.

In order to get your story pitch noticed, you need to consider the perspective of the journalist. This approach to PR is a little more complex and takes more time, but learning and practicing effective PR techniques can pay off. A favorable or neutral article published about you or your organization is often more persuasive than an advertisement—and much less expensive.

For less than US$2,000, you can get a good publicist to write and distribute a news release that will have an “ad-equivalency” value of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a very long shelf life as it echoes throughout the Web. (To determine the exact ad equivalency rate, compute the ad cost of all the page space devoted to articles resulting from your PR effort, then multiply that times five, since articles are at least five times more valuable than ads.)

From my three decades of experience as a Washington, D.C., correspondent and PR agency head in hectic San Francisco, I recommend five things you should do if you want to get good PR coverage:

1. Learn what life is like behind a journalist’s desk.
The average journalist’s workload is heavy and complicated. Her (more than half are women) editor assigns her stories, and she maintains her own list of ideas of interesting things she should be writing about. Events that demand her attention occur. Lastly, the rest of the world wants to command as much of the extremely limited space in her publication as it can. And most of the hundreds of e-mails, phone calls, letters, delivered packages and even drop-by visitors promote stories she would never write.

She has to search through this blizzard of mostly useless information, giving mere seconds to each unsolicited pitch, making decisions in nanoseconds. Most pitches are rejected because they concern subjects she does not write about or are overly promotional.

What does she want? What’s her deadline? How does she want you to pitch her? What really motivates her? It’s simple: an interesting, timely, newsy story that’s on her beat.

2. Review the extraordinary diversity of the media.
There are more than 100,000 print and online magazines, tens of thousands of newspapers, thousands more broadcast outlets and now countless authoritative blogs. Everything in the world seems to attract its own media. For instance, there are at least four publications devoted to beekeepers in North America: Bee Culture, the American Bee Journal, BeeScene and The Speedy Bee.

Creating an effective media database means sorting through this labyrinth, selecting every appropriate publication for your story, identifying the correct reporters and editors at each of these publications, and making sure you include all of your vertical markets. You then have to keep this database updated as journalists dance through revolving doors to new beats and entirely new publications. It also helps to read enough of individual journalists’ stories to know what types of things they are interested in.

3. Train your spokespeople in the ways of the media.
It is a humbling experience, particularly for a company head, to bend to the needs of a newsroom. But if you don’t train your spokespeople to dance to the newsrooms’ tunes, plenty of your competitors are standing in line behind you ready to take your place.

4. Shape your message(s) for more media appeal.
Once you have identified the most influential journalists covering your industry or field, read their articles and reverse-engineer them. What’s their unique perspective? Do they dominate the article with their own views, or are they equal-time umpires who let everyone have their say and leave an issue to the reader to decide?

Does the journalist depend on statistics? Case histories? Customer testimonials? How do you shape your particular message to fit their particular beat? Many sharp PR people “re-top” their news releases by giving each type of trade publication its own angle: health care, legal, architectural, real estate and so on. Most services and products can be focused on unique industry applications.

5. Develop sustainable media relationships.

Long gone is the day when PR pros could claim a drinking-buddy relationship with top journalists. There are too many publications spread out all over the world and little time for cigars and scotch, even with reporters down the street.

Yet there are still opportunities for something of a social relationship with journalists in your industry. You can meet many of them at industry trade conferences. Arrange time in advance during your next conference to have breakfast, lunch, drinks or just a brief sit-down in a hotel lobby with the most influential journalists in your field or fields. Sometimes a 10-minute chat, an honest handshake and the exchange of a few personal remarks will begin and cement a relationship that can be maintained via e-mail and phone for years to come.

Once you start media relationships, don’t forget to nurture them. Offer to be there for journalists as an “industry expert” and source even when you’re not selling something. The most important thing to know about journalists is that they need you every bit as much as you need them. Without people like you, they’d have nothing to write about.

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