The care and feeding of the journalists on the media list is of the utmost importance.
The care and feeding of the journalists on the media list is of the utmost importance.

I have not had a PR professional ask me for recommendations on media relations, so I felt a little awkward explaining it to the pro the other day. Now, if you’re here often, you know that I am a little bit bossy, so giving advice is not the issue. I just thought that everyone knew this. Then, it occurred to me, what if they all know something I don’t? So here’s what I suggested and I would love your feedback.

The key to media relations is the relationship. If you have successfully worked in PR at any level, then you understand the process. I would not recommend buying media lists, which I will get into later, but I would recommend that you make it a priority to connect with journalists through your social and in-person networking. A 100% pitching rate is rare, but a high one would be due to building your own lists. Not to say the purchased information can’t make that simpler or speedier, just that I would never rely on a purchased list and then hit “send all.”

My feeling is that the process of building the list is what gives you the extensive data about the publications and where your client’s story fits in. Bypassing the building and paying for a list leaves a lot of questions on the table. Having an existing relationship with a journalist before you introduce a client paves the way to pitching that client when the time comes.

In terms of creating “newsworthy” pitches – you don’t create them. They either are or they are not. Now, your client thinks everything they do is front page news, so you have to be the voice of reason. By understanding your target publications intimately, you can offer solid feedback on their goals proactively and help them to see where they are being realistic and where they need to cash a reality check.

One thing that great pitches all have in common is that they allow the journalist to tell a story. A product press release that has all the basic sales data for a particular product does not tell a story. A press release that includes how that product is changing lives or saving significant amounts of money or entertaining the masses (and that includes real customers, who saw real results) tells a broader story. If that story applies to and can be developed for that journalist’s niche audience (all audiences are niche now) then they will be interested. Bottom line, the pitch has to make sense to the journalist (not you and not the client) to be a good pitch. You can only reliably predict that it will make sense if you have previously conducted extensive research.

Once you have put the finishing touches on your interesting story (new company, new product, new idea), you will want to pitch it to the media – which is easier said than done. Journalists are inundated with lame story ideas all day long, so their enthusiasm for hearing your pitch is low, at best. Media relations is not for the faint of heart. Once you’re sure that your product is pitch-worthy (and not a moment earlier), all you need are two things: an angle and a list.

Perfecting the angle or the story takes a bit of time. It is easy if you are the first, best, or only in your market, but if you’re entering an established market, you will need to be clear on what is different, unique or special about your product/service. These have to be tangible differences, not just tweaks or changes to everything that is already out there.

When you think of the evening news, you think flood, fire, murder – not so many stories about your neighbor having peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Journalists are looking for the next fire. Your company has to be different for them to find it interesting. You cannot convince them, so think critically of your pitch before you offer it because you may not get a second chance.

Frankly, I think media relations is harder now than it was in the old days because a) everyone thinks they can do it, b) journalists do not need constant streams of ideas or sources anymore (thanks, Google), and c) budgets have been slashed everywhere. Space is at a premium and only the best stories get covered. Bloggers have all the space they want, but, if they are good, they have lots of other companies vying for their attention.

Easy Media Relations

My simple 3-Step approach to media relations makes it easy.  All you will need is research and organization skills, time and patience – but if you have a story worth telling, it will work. And remember, media rejection is good – it can provide valuable feedback and fuel the fire to be more innovative, creative and effective.

Step 1: The Media List.

This really is the only step, because if you do not have a solid media list, you have nothing. Now, some PR people love to brag about their enormous media lists. But when it comes to media pitching, size does not matter. If you have 27 Sports Illustrated contacts and you are pitching new financial services, the list means nothing. The media list must be focused to be useful. Small and valuable is your goal.

To create an easy to use media list, divide your contacts into three categories: A) Top Tier / To Die For coverage, B) preferred industry coverage, and C) miscellaneous coverage.  You will pitch accordingly. This list is also sorted by type – broadcast (TV & radio), online (internet) and print (magazines, news papers, trades).

Top tier To Die For coverage is Forbes, People, Time, WSJ, CNN or MSNBC – the major publications that one hears of on a regular basis. Preferred industry outlets are those that are important in your industry, but may not be household names – Music Week, Kiplinger or Smart Money, for example. Tier C is for random outlets that will likely cover you because you are you – your alumni paper, your local paper, the radio show that your best friend’s brother hosts in Miami. The easiest place to start for your company media list is every publication that has covered your competition and the ones you dream of being featured in. After that, additional research may be necessary.

Now, I am super old school, so I create my list in an Excel spreadsheet with tabs for each type (Broadcast, Online, Print) and then columns that identify the outlet by Tier A, B or C. As you enter each researched outlet you will want the outlet name, the contact name, contact details, website and a column for notes. As we never mass-mail press releases, the notes column will be very important going forward. For example:

A Public Relations from A to Z Group PR Jules Zunich 208.914.4188 @JulesZunichPR Jules only likes press releases via email on Mondays

This list will be updated on an ongoing basis with feedback and comments from each journalist that is approached. The care and feeding of the journalists on the media list is of the utmost importance. Journalists are people too, and have preferences for processes such as how they receive pitches (phone call, fax or email) who pitches them (PR rep or company employee), and the like. The main goal is to know as much about the journalist and their publication as possible before you pitch them. Important things to know about your media targets include:

  • Publication details: editorial calendars, beats, schedules, how stories are assigned
  • Journalist details: do they work for other publications, do they have a separate industry blog, what are their pitching requirements, how do they source stories, previous types of stories

Step 2: The Pitch.

Whether calling or emailing, you want a quick introduction to determine their interest. Call/email and say:

“Hi This is Jules we are launching a new thingy for people called Whatever next month and wanted to know if you were interested in receiving our press release.”

If they want more, offer to send the press release and confirm details. If they do not, ask why. This is a very important step. You may find out something about your competition or your industry that will help you. For example, a competitor may have just sent a release announcing the same thing, or the journalist thinks something different is the new way to go and is only writing about that going forward.

Only email the press release if they say yes. It seems counter-intuitive, but mass emailing a press release to many people does not get you more chances of coverage. It makes you look desperate, unprofessional and it irritates journalists and worse-case scenario, it gets you black-listed. So, only after the OK, do you send off the press release. Once delivered, wait approximately one week and follow up one time only via their preferred method of contact. It is preferable to have an additional piece of information to add. Avoid saying you are just following up or asking if they got the press release. For example:

“John – It was great to speak with you last week about Whatever. Thanks for taking a look at our launch press release. Since we talked, I wanted to let you know that we added a new XYZ feature that will now be available as part of our services. Here is a link to that information.”

Repeat these steps for each contact on your list until all have been contacted. By the end of this process you will have a really good idea of where your company stands with the media. Journalists are weary of start-ups. They want to talk to users, customers, clients and partners. Be prepared to have some to offer. The founder saying the product is great is not as valuable as an actual successful client saying they got to their 10 year goals in two months using the product/service.

Step 3: Create Your Own Media.

While you are waiting for journalists to get excited about your product, spend some time creating your own news using social media. Write articles and blog posts and tweets and status updates until your little fingers hurt. Many journalists are using social media exclusively to source stories. I know one paper that has the fax machine perched over the recycling box so faxed press releases go right into the recycling, emptied daily, with not one press release having been read.

Email, the internet, and now social media have all drastically changed media relations. Some of the old-school etiquette still applies, but now there are many more opportunities to gain the attention of journalists. And chances are, they will be watching and you will not even know it. Being active in your industry’s social media circles will ensure that you have immediate access to industry professionals and the opportunity to be top of mind when they are searching for the next best thing.

Finally, media pitching takes grit. It is not easy to throw your ideas out there knowing full-well that they may be reject before you have the opportunity to finish your sentence. In an ideal scenario, a company will have a seasoned PR professional who has worked in the industry and has cultivated a golden Rolodex of writers. If not, aim to have a seasoned pro that understands the field and has the muscle to make contact with the right people.

If you can’t afford either, think twice before moving forward. Poor media relations can do damage that will leave lasting scars. The use of interns or other inexperienced people in this role is highly discouraged. Your relationship with the media is too important to let an underling manage it for you. If budget is an issue, have the underling brew your coffee instead of running to Starbucks and use the savings to hire a strong PR professional. Also, you can always send a press release, but you can’t UN-send one. Make sure your news is compatible with your contacts needs and that it is timely, interesting and relevant. If not, you have more important things to worry about anyway.

But, when it all comes together and you have a story worth telling, it will work. Need help pitching? I’m your gal.

Thanks for stopping by and I would love to hear your thoughts.

~ Jules

6 thoughts on “Media Relations 101

  1. YES! YES! YES!

    “The key to media relations is the relationship.” THIS. And this: “cash a reality check”. Indeed.

    I had to read this post twice not only because you’re a professional who’s clearly done her homework, has posted a well-written and cogent piece and writes in a style worth reading, but because you’ve written an industry primer that, for my money, should be deployed far and wide, particularly to start-ups, small- and medium-sized companies and nonprofits.

    The numbers of c-suiters and their management brothers and sisters who’ve come to me or, in corporate America, my department, extolling the virtues of Widget X ‘s imminent launch while insisting on a press release carpetbombing campaign would fill your grinchy little heart with glee. The sane, well-researched arguments you’ve made here fell on deaf ears in those days. When the company inevitably saw the single release on PR Newswire and wondered aloud why Widget Release X wasn’t getting more coverage in the trades and other outlets, I’d point to the carpetbombing strategy and calmly explain why this wasn’t EVER a good idea. The conversation only had to happen a couple times before they got it.

    What really stung, especially for the smaller companies who could’ve really used the positive pub, was the age-old problem of companies and organizations bringing the communications folks in at the tail end of the product cycle. I won’t rehash our numerous discussions in this forum except to say DON’T DO THAT. EVER.

    One thing I’ll say about the continued splintering of the media landscape is it makes media relations folks’ jobs that much more difficult: err on the side of caution and identify too few outlets and you get tiny coverage; step too far outside your niche(s) and it could mean the sound of one hand clapping for your awesome product or service as Company Y’s carefully-crafted release falls into the metaphorical recycling bin you referenced in your piece (though yours is real, apparently).

    1. I am going to start giving you an editing credit on the blog (except I will take the editing credit on your comment.)

      Honestly, I almost always enjoy your comments more than what I wrote. Press release carpet-bombing campaign is my new favorite phrase to hate. I must just bring out the best in you?

      So, yes, yes, yes! Now, if we are so smart, why did I get this question in the first place?

      PS. Thank you!!!

      1. The editing credit is yours. Absolutely my pleasure.

        Feel free to co-opt the hated phrase at your convenience. Reading good writing makes me write well. What can I say? When it comes to your posts and my responses, you make an awesome muse. Thanks.

        Why’d you get the question? We’re not training our practitioners well. Our field has ridiculously low barriers to entry. Our credentialing is entirely voluntary (I don’t know about you but I’m not an APR). We’ve done a terrible job making the case for the importance of standardization of training and credentialing. Our flagship organization seems directionless. And so it goes.

        There’s no rule that says we all have to be smart about our communications gigs. And clearly we’re not.

      2. Again and as always, many thanks for your kind words.

        No, we are not training our practitioners well and we all suffer by allowing a ridiculously low barrier to entry. The problem, in addition to our directionless flagship organization(s), is also that lack of training and knowledge across management of every discipline. I have a particular interest and success in working with start-ups and entrepreneurs. Sometimes I think it is because I know I can help save them from themselves. Anyone can start a business, but I have watched sadly from the sidelines as businesses flounder and then try a hail mary when the nouveau PR guru swoops in and sweeps the unsuspecting client off their feet. Shame on them, but I have made a good percentage of my lifetime income advising on PR HazMat clean up (which in this case stands for hazardous marketing material.)

        So, what’s the answer?

  2. Jules, once again you’ve nailed it. Getting press coverage is about giving professional journalists what they need for a good story! No matter how strong your relationship, rarely will a journalist do anything with something of very limited news value. I’ve long believed that the explosive growth of social media allows organization to create their own news and communicate much more directly with the target audience, with much greater impact. Still can’t underestimate the value of having a community talking about your services and your products in the maintstream media, but it’s no longer the only way to get your news to your customers.

    1. Thanks Colleen and thanks so much for being here.

      I agree and I think that social media has been a bit of a relief in that regard. As professional communicators we can guide our clients to adopt a portfolio of solutions, balancing media coverage goals and content creation.

      All the best,

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