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Unless your issue or organization is red-hot at the moment, getting reporters to cover you can be a challenge. It is always easier to pitch a story to a reporter who knows you and who is willing not only to take your calls, but also to listen to a lengthy explanation of why this story is critical. Making a cold call to a reporter who has no idea who you are can be uncomfortable and only rarely results in a story.
If you intend to use the media to reach your target audiences, it is well worth the time it takes to build relationships with reporters, editors and producers. The more recognizable your name or the name of your organization, the more likely press people are to respond to your story ideas.
Media relations involves two sometimes discreet tasks: relating to the media so they will give your organization coverage; and using the media to relate to the public. Many people forego the former but are still convinced they can achieve the latter. Big mistake. Media relations is, in large part, salesmanship. You need to give reporters a reason to need you, and that requires the building of relationships.
There are several easy and successful ways to cultivate your local media:
- Pay attention to which reporters are covering organizations and issues similar to yours. Put them on a list to receive your newsletter and other mailings that don’t contain sensitive information.
- When a new reporter appears at your local TV station or newspaper, send a welcoming letter as well as a fact sheet about your issues.
- Clip any articles or interesting facts found in professional publications that reporters would probably never see. Send these items with a quick note that says, “Thought you might find this interesting.”
- If a reporter does a story that is even remotely related to the issues you cover, send him or her a nice note praising the story. And attach a brochure or fact sheet about your organization, “for future use.”
For most organizations, the local media serve as a conduit to reach their target audiences as well as the general public. There are many vehicles for getting the media to focus on information, an event or a news story you think is important, including the following:
- News release: A news release is one of the most basic ways of conveying information to the press. It is often used when simple information needs to be exchanged, such as the results of a new study or the start-up of a clinic. A news release of more than two pages probably means that this is not an adequate vehicle for such a complicated story. (See the “News Release Checklist” at the end of this section.)
- News or press conference: A press or news conference is held only if you have a major announcement or late-breaking news. It should be a last choice, rather than a first choice as explained in “What Makes News”. When possible, try not to have a speaker/s standing behind a podium in a drab room. Television is a visual medium, and you will likely get better TV coverage if there are some visual elements. Hold your news conference outside in a symbolic or meaningful location. Add some human interest. Keep the length of your news conference to no more than 30 minutes, with 15 minutes of that time allocated for questions and answers. Use a press advisory to tell reporters about your press conference or event. A press advisory is one page in length, and literally contains the who, what, when and where along with a list of speakers or highlights of the event.
- Media briefing: This is an excellent forum for discussing something complicated or that is not newsworthy or time-sensitive. Basically, you get a group of reporters (between five – eight works best) together for a roundtable discussion. Often, a breakfast or lunch briefing works well—reporters love to be fed! The discussion begins with a presentation on your issue or topic. If, for example, you’re discussing a new mentoring program, speakers might include your organization’s executive director, the head of the mentoring program, a mentor and a person being mentored. Each would talk from a different perspective for no more than five minutes. Then you would begin a discussion with the reporters so they could ask questions, discuss story ideas and raise their own issues. You should have relevant handouts and visual aids to use during the briefing. The entire briefing should last no more than one hour. Usually such media briefings succeed in framing an issue, giving reporters a context for an issue or getting them interested in covering an issue. Sometimes stories result from these briefings, but not always, and that should not be your goal. Rather, your objective is to demystify or explain a complicated issue and ensure that when reporters do cover it, the story will be correct. Some organizations hold an annual or semi-annual media briefing to keep reporters informed of their issues. Such briefings can be called, “State of Volunteerism” or something along those lines. A press advisory or invitation would be used to invite reporters
- Editorial board meeting: This forum is used to persuade a newspaper to write an editorial advocating a particular position. Every paper has an editorial board (sometimes it’s actually a board, other times an individual) and you can set up a meeting by calling and asking for the person who heads the board. You must go into the meeting ready to clearly and persuasively state your position. It is often helpful to take with you a partnership member who is influential in the community and can speak on your behalf. Also be sure to have a concise handout to leave behind. If the editorial board decides not to take a position on your issue, ask them to use an op-ed piece written by you or someone in your organization.
- Op-eds and letters to the editor: Most newspapers welcome columns and letters written by members of the community. While they don’t often have the impact of news articles, they are frequently read and can even spark new stories. The most important rule is to use them judiciously. You only want to send in op-eds and letters when they are important so as not to be viewed as a “crank.” An op-ed (short for opinion-editorial) is a bylined column by a member of the community stating an opinion on a given topic. Most op-eds are between 500 – 900 words. They must be topical, timely, well written, and clearly state a strong opinion. Before writing one, you might want to call the editor of your paper’s op-ed page to see if he or she is interested in receiving a column on the topic you’ve selected
- One-on-ones: Sometimes—especially if you have several messages, ideas or stories to present— it is easier to arrange one-on-one meetings with reporters. For example, if your organization expects to undergo many changes in the coming year, it might be advantageous to set up “New Year’s” one-on-ones with influential reporters in your community. You can provide each one with a calendar of events and benchmarks for the coming year and explain the biggest changes that are expected to take place. Again, this may not result in a story the next day, but it will set the stage for future stories. If you go this route, be sure to include someone from each of the media outlets in your community. The worst outcome is to forget or ignore one media outlet and have that come back to haunt you.
- Community bulletin boards: Most media outlets produce a “community bulletin board” that lists announcements and local events. If you need to solicit volunteers or publicize an event, write a short announcement of no more than 100 words that includes a brief description and a phone number for people to call. Keep in mind that some of these announcements may be made in the evening, so try to list a phone number that is staffed after traditional business hours. Make sure your announcement gets to the media outlets with plenty of lead time; a minimum of two weeks before your event is a good rule of thumb. Don’t be afraid to follow up with a phone call to ensure that your announcement was received, which may also create an opportunity to chat with the person in charge of maintaining the bulletin board. You might ask if they accept photographs or logos (if it’s TV or print) for future mailings.
There are a variety of tools you can use to reach reporters:
- The news or press release. See the description above, and the checklist at the end of this section.
- Media advisory. This is a one-page document whose sole purpose is to get reporters to attend an event or news conference. It should contain a brief and compelling description of the event, including all speakers, and then answer the four key questions: who, what, where and when. Do not include quotes or other extraneous information. A media advisory is bare-bones. It must also include contact information (including an evening phone number) in case the reporter has a question or needs additional information. An advisory should be received by a reporter or producer at least three days prior to the event (unless it’s a last-minute news event) and can be either faxed or mailed.
- Invitation. If you are holding a media briefing (see description above) to which a select number of reporters/producers are being invited, you may want to send an invitation instead of an advisory. An invitation will indicate that this reporter is not part of a mass mailing, and that an RSVP is requested. The invitation does not need to be fancy. If you know the reporter personally, you might want to handwrite a note at the bottom such as, “I really hope you can make it.”
- Pitch letter. If you want to get someone from your organization scheduled as a guest on a local talk show or radio program, you can send a pitch letter. This is a short (no longer than one page) personal letter to a reporter, explaining why your idea/program/spokesperson is unique and would be of interest to the reporter. It varies from an invitation because it is more persuasive in tone and is attempting to solicit an invitation to appear, rather than asking a reporter to attend something you are organizing.
- Phone call. This is probably the most important tool in your arsenal. Regardless of whether you send a news release, an advisory, a pitch letter or an invitation, you will need to follow up with a phone call. Person-to-person contact is often the key to getting reporters to pay attention. You can ask if the reporter/producer/editor received your release or advisory, and whether she or he plans to cover the event or story. You can gauge interest by the tone of the reporter and try various ways of framing the issue to spark interest. The best time to call is before 10 a.m., when reporters often are at their desks and less stressed than later in the day when deadlines loom. Always begin the conversation with, “Do you have a minute?” or “Is this a good time to talk?” so you aren’t cut off in the middle of your spiel. If it isn't a good time, ask when you can call back.
- Meetings. People usually take phone calls or read messages from people they already know, so it is helpful to make time to meet with reporters and editors occasionally. If your organization is new in town, set up a meeting to introduce yourself. And be sure to leave background materials about your organization and issues. If you are already established, an occasional brief visit or lunch helps maintain that relationship.
Journalists are usually well-intentioned, hard-working professionals attempting to get the story right. Respect that and keep the following tips in mind, regardless of whether the reporter/editor/producer calls you or you initiate the call:
- They are usually working under enormous pressure. They have deadlines. Most print journalists file their stories around 3 p.m. They gather information in the morning and write in the afternoon. The best time to call any reporter is early, before 10 a.m. Always ask if they’re on deadline and if there is a better time for you to call back.
- No matter when you talk with a reporter, be concise. They are rarely interested in a mini-seminar or, unless you are good friends, in just chatting. Get down to business quickly and get your message across clearly.
- Whenever you call a reporter to pitch a story idea, make sure you have something in writing that explains the story. Most of the time a reporter or editor will ask, “Have you got something in writing you could send me?” If you’re not familiar with the reporter/editor/producer, fax not only a written description of your story or news, but also a one-page fact sheet on your organization or program.
- The goal in media relations is always to make a story easy for a reporter. You want to ask as little of him/her as possible. You'll score extra points for this!
- Always answer questions honestly or, if you cannot, don’t answer at all. Being evasive, dishonest or misinformed is far worse than saying, “I don’t know” or “I can’t answer that.” Also, try never to say, “No comment.” Tell him or her what you would feel comfortable discussing. Don’t be afraid to set parameters.
- Try to be helpful. If you can’t help a reporter, see if you can refer her to someone else. Say you’ll call back as soon as you can get the information.
- Always return a reporter’s phone call, even if it’s to say you are not the right person to talk about this particular issue. You never want to alienate a reporter if you can avoid it.
- Don’t be afraid to offer suggestions to a reporter/editor/producer who is preparing a story. If the story is about volunteers in your community, you could easily suggest some “star” volunteers the reporter could talk to. You might also want to recommend some programs that are successful primarily because of volunteers—something the reporter might not otherwise know. And if you have photographs or videotape of volunteers at work, ask if that would be a useful addition to the story.
- Keep a file of things that might be helpful to a reporter. These might include videotapes of your organization’s activities that could be used for B-roll (background video for a news story), or testimonials and letters from older adults and community leaders that speak well about your programs. Visuals such as photographs or memorabilia may also be helpful to share with reporters and producers.
- Keep reporters in mind if you hear something that may be of interest to them for a story, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve your organization. Occasionally giving reporters ideas builds goodwill. Don’t be a pest, but be willing to pass along things you hear and see.
News Release Checklist
- I have a well-defined reason for sending out this news release.
- The first paragraph of the release summarizes all the information that follows, and the language is lively and to the point.
- All the information I need to convey can fit into two pages or less, double-spaced.
- I have written an informative, interesting headline.
- I have eliminated “puff” words like “exciting,” “best,” etc. The information contained in this news release is exciting on its own, and reporters will see that.
- There is no jargon or unexplained acronyms in the news release.
- All quotes in the release enhance and explain the news rather than just stroke egos.
- I have included a contact name and number at the top of the page, including an evening or home number so reporters on deadline can write the story at any time.
- The press release is double-spaced, all words are spelled correctly, and it is easy to read.
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