Media Relations

Preparation Pays: How to Write a Media Briefing

 Flickr Creative Commons Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Flickr Creative Commons Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you work in media relations, one of your biggest fears involves watching the leader of your organization get flustered by a reporter or stumble in front of a TV camera.

But while even the most experienced interview subject gets tripped up by a tough question from time to time, you can avoid most media missteps by making sure your subject is fully prepared.

Every time a subject is speaking with the media, that person should be equipped with a clear sense of what they should say.

That's why whenever we schedule interviews for our clients, we create a briefing memo.

This document gives the interview subject an opportunity to prepare for the interview ahead of time -- and provides a sense of comfort.

Our briefing memos follow a common format, which makes it easy for our team to generate them quickly (which is especially useful when you're preparing for an interview that is being conducted on a short deadline).

Here's what our memos include:

An Introduction

Each memo starts with sentence or two that provides high-level information about the media opportunity -- including the name of the reporter(s), the media outlet he or she represents, and why the opportunity is important.

Timeline and Location

It's helpful to include the most vital information near the top of your memo for quick reference.

Our memos always include the location of the interview (including the street address and any important directions). If your interview subject is meeting with a reporter in his or her newsroom, make sure you not only provide the address of the news outlet, but you provide information about what to do when the subject arrives.

We also include a detailed timeline, including when to leave for the meeting, who is accompanying the subject to the meeting, and how to contact both the reporter and anyone from your team who might be joining.

For phone interviews, we include information about who is calling who, the expected duration of the call, and whether it will be recorded.

Interview Format

Next, we detail the format for the interview -- spelling out whether it will be one-on-one or with a group or editorial board.

We also detail the objective of the interview. In some cases, the objective might be to help land a feature story, or to provide opinion or context for a story the reporter is already working on. In other cases, it might be to meet with the editorial board of a newspaper to persuade the paper to take a stand on an important issue.

Here's an excerpt from a recent briefing memo we put together for an expert source who was meeting with a reporter at The Wall Street Journal: "Unless otherwise agreed, this meeting will be considered on the record, but will be informational in nature. Our expectation is that it will position you as a key source and that it will spawn future opportunities for coverage."

Key Messages

Once we've established the ground rules and the format, we provide 2-4 key messages for the interview subject. These messages are usually quite specific and correlate to a set of talking points.

If you're looking to promote a new program or raise awareness about a key issue, this is where you can provide some focused advice to your subject on what he or she should be focusing on -- and how to direct the conversation.

Background on the reporter/outlet

It always helps the interview subject to have as much information as possible about the reporter(s) involved in the interview.

We generate short bios of the reporters, along with links to some of their recent stories so the subject can get a sense of who they are talking to and how they typically approach their work.

When possible, we include a photo to put a face on the reporter (which is especially helpful when you're meeting for the first time in public).

This background information usually helps put the subject at ease (and in some cases helps prepare them for tough questions).

Potential Questions

We also aim to provide a list of questions/topics that we expect the reporter to focus on during the interview.

Often, we try to gain as much information as we can from the reporter ahead of time to get a sense of what he or she is interested in covering and supplement what we learn by reading their recent coverage of similar topics and, when appropriate, information from a pitch that we've developed on the topic.

While we have a general format for our briefings, you can develop a format that works best for your team. The most important thing, though, is to make sure you do everything you can to prepare your spokespeople for every interview.

This will help ensure you're conveying the right message -- and that you're ready for tough questions when they come.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that this is just one way to set up a briefing memo.

You might choose a different format, based on the needs and preferences of the people you work with.

But it's important to make sure you're taking steps to fully prepare your subjects ahead of time.

A little preparation now will save you a lot of headaches later!

How to Write Op-Eds That Change the Conversation

A well-placed op-ed can help you call attention to an important issue or change minds about a controversial topic.

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The explosive op-ed written by a senior member of the Trump administration that was published this week in The New York Times is an extreme example.

But op-eds can also be incredibly useful for nonprofits and companies that are looking to inspire action in local and national markets.

Op-eds explained

Unlike reported news stories, op-eds are opinion pieces written by those who aren’t on the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website. They offer outside voices the opportunity to express opinions and share ideas in their own words.

Traditionally, they appear opposite the editorial page (hence the name, op-ed), which is where the newspaper’s editorial board expresses its opinion on important issues.

Why op-eds matter

While newspapers don’t quite carry the same influence they once did, op-eds can nonetheless be valuable tools for those looking to raise awareness about a problem or issue.

In fact, one could argue that op-eds have more influence than ever.

That’s because a published op-ed not only appears in the newspaper, it also appears online, which gives you the opportunity to point to it on your own site, in blog posts, and through social media.

But, as is the case with pitching stories, it’s a challenge to get news outlets to run your opinion piece.

Newspapers and other outlets only have the resources and space to run a limited number of op-eds. As result, competition for these pieces can be fierce.

How can you get your opinion published?

We've helped a number of organizations and individuals write and place high-impact op-eds -- and we've learned a few tricks along the way to maximize our odds of getting these pieces published.

Download this free e-book to learn our 5-step process for writing and placing op-eds that change minds and inspire action.

How to Plan a Media Tour

 Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Mark Vletter

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Mark Vletter

If you're like most nonprofit communicators, your go-to move is to send a press release to the media whenever your organization announces something new.

But if you have been disappointed with the results of your releases, it might be time to try a different approach: getting your top leader out of the office and in front of the journalists you're counting on to tell your story.

In recent months, I've been setting up media tours for nonprofits and foundations in which an executive or expert within the organization sets aside a day or two to meet informally with key reporters and editors -- and these tours have generated some terrific results.

While it requires an investment of time -- and some serious preparation -- a media tour can be an incredibly valuable exercise for organizations that are looking to build a lasting media presence. A media tour can be especially helpful when your organization is looking to:

  • introduce a new leader who is looking to articulate his or her vision for your organization to the public
  • launch a significant new initiative
  • bolster the reputation of a thought leader within your organization
  • release a new strategic plan
  • break into a new media market
  • target a national audience

At a time when most outreach to news outlets occurs virtually, there's real value in finding opportunities to meet in person. By having your leaders sit across the table from a reporter or editor, you're able to demonstrate their expertise, build rapport, show their passion for your organization's work, and (perhaps most importantly) learn more about what the journalist is working on and cares about.

In turn, you are likely to develop a relationship that can lead to ongoing opportunities to tell your story and show your expertise. We've found that even one positive face-to-face meeting with a journalist can put you top of mind whenever that journalist is looking for sources for future stories.

You become a go-to source that they know and trust.

But before you decide to clear your executive director's schedule for a day of press meetings, keep in mind that successful media tours require quite a bit of planning, preparation, and persistence.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider setting up a tour:

Be Selective -- Before you begin, have a goal in mind. If you're launching a new program, for instance, identify the key audiences you need to reach for your program to succeed and then take time to identify a handful of reporters and editors who work at outlets that reach those audiences.

Set a Realistic Timeline -- Your organization's leaders are busy people -- and so are journalists. To get on their schedules (and to ensure that you're not wasting your own time), begin the process of setting up your tour at least 3-4 weeks ahead of time. This will allow you to get on journalists' calendars before they fill up, identify potential conflicts, and work through your target list in order of priority. This also leaves enough time in the process to research the journalists you're meeting with, develop briefing materials (more on this shortly!), and prepare for the meetings.

Leave White Space -- If you're setting up one day of media meetings as part of your tour, you'll likely feel the urge to pack the day with as many meetings as possible. But a packed schedule can lead to rushed meetings, late appearances, and stress. A realistic tour more likely includes a pair of morning meetings, a break for lunch, and a pair of afternoon meetings -- and 30 minutes to an hour of unscheduled time between each meeting to accommodate travel time and conversations that run long.

Do Your Homework -- Conduct as much research about each journalist you're meeting with as you can. Read their bios. Study their recent coverage online. Follow them on Twitter and other social networks. This will help you understand what they care about and identify ways in which you can help them moving forward.

Prepare a Briefing -- Each time we set up an in-person meeting between a source and a reporter, we create a written briefing that includes goals, key talking points, background about the reporter and his or her work, and logistical details about the meeting itself (where it will take place, whether it's on or off the record, how long the meeting is scheduled for, etc.). This material helps the source prepare for the conversation -- and it's especially important for a source who is preparing for multiple meetings on the same day.

Be Flexible -- The news business can be unpredictable. When news breaks, a reporter might have to cancel or reschedule a meeting at the last minute -- or, in some cases, have another reporter fill in if he or she can't be there. We recommend checking in a week ahead and then a day ahead of your scheduled meeting to be sure nothing has changed -- and to be prepared for the unlikely (but still real) possibility of a last-minute cancellation. Make sure you prepare your source for that possibility as well. And, if you do have a cancellation, use it as an opportunity to pivot and either set up a future meeting or call or to pitch a story.

Anticipate the Unexpected -- Plan to join your leader for the tour -- and be ready for anything. We recommend having a plan set up for transportation (either serving as the driver yourself or coordinating to make sure you have someone who can get you from point A to point B on time) -- and making sure you have a stealth supply of snacks, an umbrella, a stain stick, and more so that you can deal with whatever curve balls are thrown at you. You should also have some leave behind materials that you can give to the reporters and editors who meet with you.

Take Notes -- While your leader is fielding questions and sharing his or her perspectives, make sure you're there to document and take notes. Pay special attention to unanswered questions, follow-up items, and opportunities for future coverage.

Follow Up -- Once your day is over, follow up directly with each media member to thank them for their time, provide promised information, and coordinate next steps.

As you can see, a media tour isn't a small lift. But it will likely provide you with relationships and sustained coverage that you can't get through press releases.

Avoid the 'Bad Pitch Hall of Fame'

 Spamming reporters won't help you get your story told in the newspaper. Flickr Creative Commons photo by Jeff Eaton

Spamming reporters won't help you get your story told in the newspaper. Flickr Creative Commons photo by Jeff Eaton

An old friend and I have a tradition that dates back to the late 1990s when we were working together as news reporters in Boston.

Whenever we get a horrible e-mail pitch from a PR person, we forward it to each other and nominate it for our Bad Pitch Hall of Shame.

We’ve collected some doozies over the years — everything from tone-deaf pitches about hair implants to a recent favorite that featured the colorful backstory behind the creation of a $1,300 purse for men.

Quite often, the joke isn’t the product or story that’s being pitched (though some of the topics are hilarious)— but rather the fact that the pitch itself is so far off the beat or so tone deaf that it has no chance of actually leading to legitimate news coverage.

Sadly, there are countless PR people making a living by sending these hopeless releases to reporters who are either ignoring them or, worse, laughing about them.

But if you are trying to get meaningful news coverage for your business or nonprofit, the path to success is paved not by simply sending out press releases.

The reality is that even the best press release is not going to get full traction if you ignore one key ingredient – building relationships.

If I’ve learned anything over 25 years of working in and with the media, it’s that you can’t spam your way to great coverage.

Great coverage that begins with getting to know the reporters who cover the issues your target audiences care about.

Of course, this takes a bit of legwork.

But if you’re in charge of media relations at your organization, it’s worth the added effort. 

And if you’re hiring outside help, it’s important to make sure the agency you’re hiring is measured not by the number of releases it sends out but rather by its knowledge of and relationships with the reporters who cover your industry.

After all, you want your next big announcement to land headlines in the right outlet — and not in our Bad Pitch Hall of Shame.

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