Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Resolve for 2015 to Learn When to Shut Up

By Sarah Larson

No, I can't take your call right now. I'm covering the Memorial Day parade.

During my 20 years as a journalist, I dealt with innumerable public relations folks who did not know when to shut up. They didn’t know how to pitch me a story. Out-of-town agencies kept calling, long after the advent of caller ID allowed me to dodge their calls. They excitedly pitched me completely irrelevant “exclusives.” They couldn’t grasp the concept that a shooting or a bank robbery trumped their carefully orchestrated press conference. All in all, many of them seemed truly mystified at how to work with journalists.

After moving into public relations myself about two years ago, I have seen firsthand how understanding how journalists think and work is a huge benefit to my clients. It’s also a benefit to both sides of the PR equation – public relations folks and journalists – because it saves everyone time and frustration, and fosters better working relationships.

So, on behalf of journalists everywhere – pressed for time, paid in peanuts, and always being asked to do more and more with less and less – I offer this roundup of advice from journalists to public relations folks. Many good PR professionals know these things, but even those who do don’t practice them enough, or don’t do an effective job of helping clients set their expectations.

Here is what journalists today wish PR folks did – or didn’t do. A follow-up post will explore some of the things PR folks wish reporters would do or not do.

Understand first and foremost that nearly all news is local, whether “local” is a geographic region or a topic. If you want to pitch a national story or a national issue to a local or regional media outlet, you must find a local angle. Says one suburban Philadelphia journalist, “The only real problem I had is when one firm called me six times in one day (no lie) to pitch me a non-local story on pet insurance and related products.” Says another, "Don't pitch me stories that have nothing to do with my beat or my state."
Source: American Society of News Editors

Understand that everyone’s time is valuable and finite, and journalists are under incredible pressures to produce more. “Your pitch is not the center of everyone else’s world.” Newsroom staff nationwide has shrunk by 35 percent since 1990, according to annual surveys by the American Society of News Editors. That means fewer people to cover the news – and raises the threshold of importance in deciding what does and doesn’t get covered. It also means that those people still working in newsrooms have more to do; be respectful of their time and get straight to the point.

Do your homework – or do it better. Spend some time researching the reporters and the topics/beats they cover. Only pitch them on a story if you can find an appropriate angle for their audience. Says one Lehigh Valley-based reporter, “Don’t repeatedly send me press releases about events/stories that clearly aren’t related to the area that I cover. No need to send me information on an event in Philly when we don’t cover the city.” A sportswriter agreed. “The biggest thing that annoys me as a sportswriter is when I get releases that have nothing to do with me. Like stuff about traffic patterns or news stories. So basically, the best thing is to know who you are sending to instead of just the universal email database.”

Be organized and plan ahead. Says one business reporter, "If you're sending something that is on the daily news cycle, make sure your clients are available for comment. This has happened far too many times in the past, often with press releases on major management changes at local companies. If you have a new CEO, that person should be available for additional comment when you send out the release." If time is limited, scheduling a conference call between the client and a group of journalists can be helpful.

Think visually. Providing an interesting setting for interviews or an event is crucial if you are hoping for photographs or video coverage. From a television producer, “A bunch of talking heads at a podium or a conference room is the most boring television ever. Help us tell your story by showing us your story.”

Do not name drop. It’s annoying. “No need to tell me that State Rep. or Senator so-and-so is going to be there in an attempt to make it seem like a bigger deal than it is. Their presence, to me, means absolutely nothing.”

Find out how each newsroom that is important to you or a client operates. Learn what their deadlines are, when their shifts start, when their planning meetings are held, and take that into consideration when pitching stories or scheduling events. From a television producer, “Contact the local media and ask THEM what would be the best time to hold a press conference...my daysiders come in at 9:30 a.m., so if you schedule a presser for 9 a.m., you can pretty much forget about us showing up. Also, allow for travel time.”

Consider offering the story ahead of time on an embargoed basis. The more lead time journalists have to prepare coverage, the better. Working with reporters with whom you have developed trust and giving them the story in advance can help improve the odds of getting coverage. Says one reporter, "Breaking news aside - because the world still stops for breaking news - the more lead time I have on a story, the more likely it is that I can arrange my schedule to include it. I've found that more PR firms are offering stories on embargo. I appreciate that trust and the recognition that I'm not sitting by the phone waiting for news to happen."

Send calendar invites for events. Says one editor, "Attach an i-calendar item with an emailed press release that a reporter can just click on and add to their Outlook calendar with all the necessary information right there. Even if they haven't decided whether they will cover your event when you send the release, making it easy for them to add to their calendar gives you a better chance that it will be reconsidered in the days before."

Understand the types of stories that are good for TV/video or for text. A TV journalist says, “Don't bother sending us releases about events that already happened (unless it's like final numbers for fundraising totals). Tell us BEFORE so we have the option to cover your event.” Print and online journalists, however, often will welcome information about an event that has passed, especially if there are photographs to share or final numbers for attendance, funds raised, etc.

Never, ever take it personally. It’s not about you, or your client. “If your pitch doesn’t succeed one time, no bitching or whining about it next time. That will pretty much guarantee worse results. Move on, it’s not personal.”

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