Media Relations

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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5 Ways to Use Social Media to Get Your Story Told

 Creative Commons image courtesy of startbloggingonline.com

Creative Commons image courtesy of startbloggingonline.com

During my days as a newspaper reporter and editor, I was always on the lookout for story ideas.

More often than not, these ideas didn’t come through news releases or pitches.

They came through something I observed. Through a conversation with a neighbor. Or through something I overheard in the checkout line at the grocery store.

More recently, these ideas came through my Twitter feed, a conversation on LinkedIn or a message on Facebook.

And I wasn’t alone.

According to Cision’s 2015 Global Social Journalism Study, 94 percent of journalists use social media daily  — with 67 percent spending up to two hours a day. In the U.S., 25 percent of journalists report that they use social media to make new contacts and 12 percent report that they have published stories based on information found on social media.

Social media provides reporters with an always-updating stream of potential story ideas — and many journalists rely on their feeds on Twitter and Facebook as a way to connect with concepts and trends that shape their reporting.

As a result, social media is an important tool for savvy media-relations professionals who are looking to get their organizations and their work in front of reporters and editors.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should instantly start tweeting story pitches at reporters.

Instead, your best path is to use social media to develop relationships with journalists that are of high value to your nonprofit. As you do so, you’ll build a level of credibility that can help you get contacted and — later — pitch ideas.

Below are five strategies for using social media to your advantage in media relations.

Gather Intelligence

Want to pitch a story idea to a reporter? It helps to understand his or her interests.

Social media offers you an opportunity to learn about what makes that reporter tick.

Many reporters are regular users of Twitter. In fact, the Cision study found that 71 percent of U.S. journalists are using the platform.

And they don’t just Tweet about what they’ve written or reported. Often, they will share stories or ideas from others that offer a window into topics and issues that they find interesting or newsworthy.

As a result, if there are specific journalists or bloggers who are important targets, it’s useful to follow them on Twitter, on their professional Facebook pages, on Instagram or through LinkedIn.

These networks can offer a great window into their work — and provide you with insights that can help you with your next pitch.

Build Relationships

Journalists have been facing a lot of heat lately. But, believe it or not, many of them are approachable.

This is especially true on social media. More than two-fifths of journalists in the Cision study say they reply to comments on social media sites.

Don’t be afraid to post thoughtful replies or comments to Tweets and posts from journalists. They might not always reply back, but well-placed comments can lead to conversations. And those conversations can ultimately lead to relationships.

Respond to Breaking Events

When news breaks, many news organizations will deploy a reporter to follow what’s happening on social media to gauge reactions and gather information.

If a breaking story relates to your mission, you stand a good chance of attracting the attention of journalists if your organization is sharing information and facts that can help put the situation into context.

If conversations about that story are getting organized around a specific hashtag, be sure to use that tag on any content you share. Posting facts, insights and links will not only help the public understand what’s happening, it can send a signal to journalists that your organization knows its stuff and is worth contacting for an interview.

And even if it doesn’t lead to an interview, it could lead to a spot in their news coverage. A growing number of news organizations publish tweets as they are covering events. If your organization’s tweet gets picked up, it could help position you as a thoughtful voice.

Promote Your Thought Leadership

If your organization has a blog or produces regular online content, it should already be sharing that content on social media.

But if it isn’t, here’s an argument for changing that practice — it can get the attention of journalists.

Reporters and editors will often read blogs from thought leaders in their coverage areas. And they’re more likely to be finding those blogs if they see them in their social feeds.

Make Your Pitch

It’s not out of bounds to use a social networking site to pitch a reporter directly.

Usually, the best avenue for making a pitch to a reporter on social media is to do it privately — through a direct message on Twitter or through Facebook Messenger. This is not only more likely to get the reporter’s attention, but it also makes it easier to have a conversation, since it’s not being broadcast to every one of your friends and followers.

Such pitches can be effective. Antionette Kerr — who writes regularly for her local newspaper in North Carolina — told me that she wrote a recent column after receiving a note through Facebook Messenger. The person who made the pitch worked for a local library and noted in her pitch that she noticed Antionette’s fondness for posting items on Facebook about books and reading.

The pitch worked, in part, because it directly tied to Antionette’s interests.

The person who made the pitch took the time to get to know Antionette and follow her before making her move.

The lesson: social media can be effective if you use it smartly and tactfully.

When Am I 'On the Record' With a Journalist?

 Flickr Photo by William Murphy

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

When preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an interview, you invariably spend time coaching them on what to say and how to act when the camera is rolling or when the reporter is scribbling notes.

But do you also prep them for what to do when the “on air” light is off or when the reporter closes the notebook?

If you aren’t, you’re overlooking a crucial detail — one that can lead to some unfortunate headlines.

That’s because everything that happens during that encounter — from the moment you say hello to the moment you’re out of sight — is considered on the record. In other words, every statement you make can end up being reported.

To be sure, there are times when you can mutually agree to go off the record (and we’ll get into the mechanics of going off the record in a future post). But unless you deliberately take that step, you should keep in mind that you’re “on”.

As a result, if you’re preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an appearance or interview, it’s important that you take the time to let that person know what that means.

Unfortunately, a seemingly private comment about a cranky board member or an off-color joke is fair game — and it could end up working its way into a story.

Claiming after the fact that you didn’t know that the statement was made off camera or after the formal interview doesn’t cut it. By law — and by practice — journalists assume that you know the rules and they are often looking for well-schooled sources to say something candid or off the cuff.

This shouldn’t scare you away from doing interviews. It just means you need to act and speak deliberately.

Here is some advice on how you should prepare for some common situations:

Meetings with print media journalists

When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I often unearthed some great information after I closed my notebook at the end of a formal interview.

Often, as a source and I would exchange informal chitchat and discuss next steps, the source — feeling more relaxed — would offer some interesting perspectives or anecdotes that added to the story I was pursuing or gave me an idea for another piece.

My practice would typically be to say “I’d like to use that, do you mind if I follow up or ask you more about it now?”

Almost always, the source would agree to share more information.

But even if the source didn’t want to share more, there wasn’t much they could do about what they had already said — other than refuse to take additional questions about it or attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

When meeting with a print reporter — a term that, for the sake of this piece, includes those who write articles for newspapers, magazines or the web — there is typically a period of time before and after the formal interview where you exchange greetings and goodbyes.

Make sure you reinforce this point with your organization’s representative ahead of the interview — and let that person know that the entire conversation is on the record.

If the representative has concerns, offer some potential topics of conversation that they can bring up during these more informal portions of the interview — and discuss some things they should avoid saying or doing.

Television, radio and digital media

Recent history is littered with examples of politicians and celebrities who have gotten themselves in hot water for saying something that was picked up by a ‘hot mic’.

President Donald Trump, one assumes, likely wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he was engaging in “locker room talk” with Billy Bush on that Access Hollywood tour bus. Same goes for Robert Durst, who was caught on microphone talking to himself about his role in a high-profile series of murders during the taping of a documentary series.

The lesson for nonprofit communicators is simple — if you’re going on television or on the radio, assume that everything you say is getting picked up on a microphone, even if you’re not technically “on air”.

Even if the camera does not appear to be rolling or the radio segment has gone to commercial, you should assume the audio is being recorded and that anything you say can be picked up and used later.

Again, it’s important to emphasize this point to representatives from your organization who are not experienced with on-air interviews to be sure that they are aware of the ground rules and are well prepared.

Social media

Finally, it’s worth noting that comments you make on social media — whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another source — are also “on the record.” Increasingly, media outlets are quoting statements made by individuals on the social networks in their reporting.

As a result, it’s important for officials at your organization to recognize this fact and to be careful about what they post and what they comment on.

If you wouldn’t want what you said on Facebook to appear in your local newspaper or on the TV news, it’s probably best not to say it at all.

 

Note: I originally wrote this post for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where I serve as a regular advisor on media relations for nonprofits.

PR Pickup Lines: How to Start a Relationship With Your Favorite Reporter

 Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

When was the last time you reached out to a reporter without a story to pitch?

If you’re like many nonprofit communicators, you might be straining to answer this question because it’s been a long time.

This is especially true if your role isn’t exclusively focused on media relations. If your work also involves some combination of social media, marketing, speechwriting, fundraising solicitations, event planning, blogging, and managing the production of your annual report, it’s hard to carve out the time to actually build relationships with reporters and editors.

As a result, your media relations work largely focuses on sending out news releases. Often at the last minute.

And, often, you send those releases out of obligation or habit — not because you think they are actually going to result in a media hit.

But if you care about getting better coverage for your organization, I’d like to try to break this cycle by giving you an assignment.

I’d like you to try to pick up a reporter.

Of course, I don’t mean this in the get-a-number-and-let’s-go-out context.

What I’m suggesting is much more, let’s say, professionally correct.

The first step is to identify a reporter who works for a news outlet that reaches a key audience for your nonprofit. Ideally, it’s a reporter who you’ve been thinking that you should build a relationship with. 

Now here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to pitch a story with your initial outreach.

Instead, you’re simply going to introduce yourself or your organization to that reporter — and make it clear that you’re there to help.

That’s it.

You’re not going to try to sell him a story idea or get her to come to your annual dinner.

You’re simply aiming to start a relationship that will eventually evolve into a story or an invite or an interview.

How do you do this?

It’s easier than you might think.

Ideally, you want to start the relationship by sending the reporter or editor three important signals:

  1. You follow and respect his or her work.
  2. You or your organization can be a resource in future reporting.
  3. You’re not looking to simply pitch stories — you want to be a partner.

The first step in this process involves a bit of legwork.

You actually have to spend a little bit of time getting to know the journalist’s work. Go online and look at recent stories he or she has covered. Pay attention to the themes they cover and the examples they cite.

Next, think about how you can help.

Perhaps it’s by providing them with background data or a report. Perhaps it’s by having them get to know your executive director. Perhaps it’s by offering to connect them with a partner organization that does similar work.

The next step takes a bit of courage.

Send that reporter an introductory email or note.

If you don’t know where to start, let me give you a few suggested “pickup lines” or openers:

  • “I’ve enjoyed following your coverage of nonprofits for the XYZ Gazette and wanted to offer my organization as a resource to you for future stories …”
  • “Your recent piece on state budget cuts is an important one for our community because it will likely reduce the amount of aid to nonprofit organizations. As you continue to report on this story, I’m happy to put you in touch with some local experts who can add perspective …”
  • “I followed with interest your recent series on Medicaid. Since you’re interested in this topic, I thought I’d pass along a 2016 study by the ABC Institute that includes some projections that might interest you in future reporting …”

It doesn’t have to be fancy or too in-depth. It simply needs to start a conversation.

Chances are, you’ll get a reply.

And with that reply will come an opportunity to take that budding relationship to the next level.

It might not pay off immediately, but in time that relationship has the potential to develop into one where you become a trusted resource for that reporter.