Media Relations: Press Releases Don’t Beat Good Conversations

By on Friday, July 28, 2017

As a media relations expert, I am routinely asked how to craft pitching angles or get a story placed with a blog, publication or broadcast outlet. Of course, if you have news – something that is timely, breaking, uniquely interesting, or of great public value – you can often achieve coverage and placement. But what about when the story is softer and you are trying to stand out in a sea of others?

Perhaps you are a company that wants to highlight your CEO. Or a nonprofit that wants to share its good work. Or an association with a membership base that wants focus on its issues.

Inc. editor Jane Berentson recently wrote, “A press release will never beat a good conversation” and she’s got a great point.

But how do you have those conversations? Public relations professionals calling media after a targeted distribution often get dumped into voice mails and can’t have those conversations. I’ve talked with junior staff at major firms who talk about making call after call, not because those calls earn ink or conversations, but because the firm wants to report numbers to the client.

But how do you get to conversations with reporters and editors if you don’t know them? You get there by being authentic and focusing on relationship-building. Here’s a few tips.

#1 – Abandon your notions of what media relations outreach has to be. It can’t all be about numbers. When you are focused on churning out numbers and not authentic relationship-building for your client, organization or business with the media – you have lost sight of the goal.

#2 – Don’t treat your media relations like content marketing. In this day and age with content marketing – organizations are sending out pre-written stories that get picked up by bloggers and smaller newspapers who need to fill space. But the mass distribution methods we use for placing pre-written stories, don’t work when we have a softer story that needs one-on-one attention from a reporter or editor.

#3 – Set clear expectations with the boss, the client or whoever is above you and cares about the pitch. Talk with the powers that be and make sure they understand – authentic media relations is about being real and targeting – not mass blasting. This means they will need to accept that stories take time to place. Yes, we can score helpful tips on a lifestyle issue or product in smaller publications – but the in-depth feature they would love to see will take time to pitch and place.

#4 – You begin with finding the right reporter or editor for the story you want to share. You start with targeting the right reporter or editor for the story you have. This might require reviewing similar news on the topic, cyberstalking research, and looking over work they’ve recently written or produced.

#5 – Craft a solid pitch that is authentic, not fake. Reach out to the reporter or editor and indicate you’ve read something they’ve written, what your story idea is, and say something interesting about why it’s important/unique/different/special/offers lessons for others/relates to some bigger pressing issue in the headlines now. So often sample pitches I review from communications staff are lackluster and lack pizzazz, shine or any degree of a story hook. Don’t use generic terms like “your publication” in your pitch (a dead give away that you mass blasted your pitch). Don’t make grandiose claims that won’t hold water. Talk about people, not just programs or initiatives. Especially on a softer story – reporters need a voice or person to help carry the story – otherwise it will be too dry. Don’t include references to their personal lives if you happened to stumble across them while doing your research. Do include brief references to the availability of statistics (fodder for graphics or story content) or photos or video. Do be real. And don’t write too much.

#6 – Follow up with the reporter or editor and try to have a conversation. Try to call at a convenient time (mornings are often best, near broadcast times or press deadlines in late afternoon is bad). If you get them on the phone, be prepared to verbally pitch your story again – you may want your original email pitch out in front of you so you can easily reference it. Then listen. Really listen to what the reporter says. If you’re lucky and the stars align -you may walk out of this with the story you are hoping for. You might even suggest a face-to-face meeting or getting together for coffee (yes, these things do still happen even in this time-sucking crazy age).

#7 – If the reporter doesn’t respond: wait, and then cut your losses and move on with the story – but focus on relationship-building. Forward your original email and add a note at the top saying you are following up with them. If you just don’t get traction, move on to another reporter or editor in a week or so. If you really feel this is the right reporter for your topic or issue, keep him or her on your media list. Reporters are inundated with email and information today. You (or your organization or client) might still end up on an experts list they keep or land on a list of future potential story topics, even if now is not the right time. Don’t blow it by acting rudely.

#8 – Be persistent about selling the story. Do not allow discouragement to dampen your enthusiasm for the story.  If what you have on your hands is a great story, someone will want to cover it. It just may take time to find the right publication or outlet and the right person to champion it. Reporters and editors today are maxed out for time and running a few thousand miles an hour, so getting on their radars can be tough. If you are starting from no relationship, you have to take it slow. Media relations is a bit like dating – and you do sometimes hear “it’s not you, it’s a great story – but I’m covering XYZ for now and into the foreseeable future, so it’s not a good fit for me.” If you get a no and they seem friendly and like the story idea, ask if there’s someone else they can recommend. And don’t give up.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven


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