How to Work With the Media

By Lindsey Townsend

If you’re a small business struggling to capture press attention, you may sometimes feel like a miniscule grain of sand trying to get noticed on a 10-mile white sand beach. The reality is that most editors, whether they work at weekly newspapers, major dailies, radio and television assignment desks, magazines, or the ever-growing number of Web publications, are generally overwhelmed with information, deluged by phone calls, and under constant deadline pressure. But there are some techniques you can use to increase the chance that your message will pique their interest--and make them pick up the phone.

While a good marketing campaign always includes a mix of advertising, marketing and public relations, press coverage is particularly valuable because it offers what money can’t buy: third-party credibility. “For the most part, the press is perceived as factual and objective, and editors guard this credibility with their lives,” says Lyria Howland, president of Howland PR. “ You can suggest or even beg for coverage for your favorite topic, but the final decision lies with the editor.”

Editorial space is a different game from advertising, where you pay for the guarantee that your information will be published when and how you want it. So don’t get upset if your three-page press release turns up as a two-sentence snippet in a full-length feature story: be grateful. “You don’t have control when or if the news will run, how it will be edited, or whether it is used as part of another news story,” says Earline Lagueruela, president of S & C Advertising & Public Relations in San Antonio.

So how do you encourage the media to shine its spotlight on your little corner of the world? The secret is simple, though not easy: deliver the story ideas that they want to cover. A media professional’s job is to continuously sift through hundreds of self-serving press releases, media kits, and story ideas in search of dynamic, meaty stories that will intrigue and inform their audiences. “Inexperienced companies tend to think the press exists to act as their agent, but the press is there for one reason only-to tell an interesting story to their readers,” says Donna Hegdahl, president of The TransSynergy Group. “Answer one important question for the publication’s readers: what’s in it for me?”

The idea is to find your niche, figure out what you do differently or better than anyone else, and run with it. “Think like a reporter who seeks breaking news and offer fresh material or insights into your business,” suggests Annemarie Marek, principal of Marek & Company. To increase your chance of getting noticed, think offbeat…an unusual slant on a popular subject, new trends or innovations, or a fresh twist on an old issue. “Endless pitches with the same basic story idea make my eyes glaze over,” agrees Frances Gordon, assistant managing editor with the Dallas Business Journal. “The ‘hot’ issue of the moment is always seized upon and pitched as though it is a unique idea by countless would-be contributors, so thinking mainstream isn’t likely to get you anywhere.”

Information that qualifies for a press release includes the hiring and promotion of executives, adding a new business line, winning an award in your industry, joining a national industry board of directors, or writing about a trend you are an expert in. Deadlines for information vary greatly depending on the publication and its frequency, so be sure to call to find out if you don’t know. If your press release quickly includes the answers to the questions of who, what, when, where and how, you will greatly increase your chances of winning media coverage,” says Anita Vanetti, president of Better Character Better Business. Keep in mind, too, that “Your story must fit into the demographics of the media’s customer/audience or it won’t be used.”

Even before you draft the release, though, many strategic questions need to be answered, including what you hope to gain through the publicity and which platform will work best for your message. “There will also be questions about distribution and execution,” Howland points out. “Do you have an up-to-date list of the appropriate editors/columnists/editors/news directors? How do they prefer to receive news releases: mail, e-mail or fax? Who will follow up?”

Knowing the questions to ask and helping companies navigate the answers is the role of a professional public relations firm. “While many small business owners don’t have the resources to hire an in-house person, many hire outside agencies on a project basis when launching a new product or service line,” says Susan Moore, senior executive vice president of Legacy Bank of Texas.

Some experts maintain that small businesses can get by with having someone internally do public relations part-time, if the efforts are consistent. “Learn all you can about the media, their audiences, publication schedules, their deadlines. Offer to be an industry expert for the press. If f you can help them do their job more efficiently, you’ll become a trusted advisor,” suggests Hegdahl.

Others, however, are not as optimistic. “Sporadic press releases do not make a communications program. An occasional release will likely not have a significant impact on your business,” warns Lagueruela. One popular compromise is to hire a boutique hire or consultant on an hourly basis to write press releases and follow up with the media.

Even businesses that have compiled a solid inhouse public relations team often find they need outside expertise in specialized areas like media relations, crisis communications or investor relations. “We get a lot of calls from companies who bring us in to complement the team they already have in place,” notes Lisa LeMaster, president of The LeMaster Group.

Cynthia Driskill, president of CDG & Associates, formerly used an outside agency but now handles her public relations internally. Her best advice: get professional help--whether it’s internal or external--and you’ll see a lot more bang for the buck. “If you don’t use a public relations firm, make sure you have the resources internally to do it. There is a definite skill to writing a press release, identifying an opportunity that you are well suited for, and determining your target audience. This isn’t something I would give to someone because they had a few extra hours in the week,” she says.

Ultimately, your best chance of getting some ink will be to make sure that the media has easy access to the hard news or unique story ideas you think would be a good fit for their publications--then leave them alone. “They’ll be in touch with you if your news is newsworthy or your story idea has merit. They’re smart human beings,” says Marek.

What NOT To Do

Although they may seem inaccessible, editors are people too, and they tend to have some pet peeves. Here are some sure-fire ways to make sure your phone calls will never be returned:

  • Send poorly written press releases with grammatical errors and no real news angle, then pester them with repeated phone calls to see if they’ve received your release.
  • Fail to communicate that you might not make a deadline, or fail to follow up when you’ve promised to deliver information.
  • Ask to read or view the story before it is published.
  • Waste an editor’s time with lengthy phone calls.
  • Call on deadline days.
  • Tell them confidential information, then say it’s “off the record” and they can’t publish it.
  • Call and leave your name and number with no explanation of what you want.
  • Ignore the editorial calendar and call about issues that are too late.
  • Act as if the newspaper should be grateful for your “free” copy.
  • Turn up at the office uninvited or unannounced.
  • Get annoyed when your story doesn’t run on its publication date.
  • Request special treatment or favors.