Media are People Too — Make the Most of the Relationship

Public relations is, at last count, about a ten billion dollar industry employing over 100,000 people. And while the practice covers a huge range of skills, from social media to video production, to crisis management, to financial and corporate communication, most small businesspeople like to focus on publicity. "How do I get the media to talk about, write about and show my product or service?"

It's a legitimate quest worth pursuing if only to reinforce the "third party endorsement" perception created when someone else says nice things about you or your products. Research shows us that publicity is about 10 times more credible than advertising. And, like Virginia O'Hanlon's father said during her quest for truth about Santa Claus, "If you see it in the (New York) Sun it must be so," folks generally believe what they read in newspapers or see on TV news shows.

Even though the press has been under attack of late because of a number of "rigged" or false stories, the power of the press is very much alive and businesses, both large and small, can take advantage of the media's ability to reach large numbers of people in a short period of time. The trick is, how to do it at a reasonable cost. And that's where the part of public relations, called Media Relations, has played a definite role in the success of many enterprises.

That success is dependant on the relationship you build with the reporters, writers, editors publishers, program directors and producers who print the publications or produce the radio and television shows in or on which you'd like to see your story. The question is, how do you get it there?

The best answer is "hire a professional public relations firm". But if that's not in the budget, there are some things to consider for a do-it-yourself publicity program. Let's keep it simple for the moment and focus only on print publications; that is newspapers and magazines. It's a fascinating practice — media relations — because it requires the ultimate in the creation of win-win situations. You win by having your story placed and the media wins by having good material to publish and expanded resources for story ideas. The only time it gets difficult is when there is lack of agreement as to what stories get placed.

It's no accident that the first 5 chapters of Alec Benn's book "The 23 Most Common Mistakes in Public Relations" is devoted to dealing with the press. Cardinal Spellman, often quoted in the New York newspapers, kept a stuffed fish hanging on the wall across from his desk to remind him to be careful with his responses to interview questions. The caption under the fish read "If I had kept my mouth shut, I wouldn't be here." So there is good reason to pay attention to your dealings with the media.There are lots of books filled with tips about dealing with the media that you can check out at your local library. But if you are guided by two rules in dealing with the media you will have some success.

1. Be professional in your dealings with the media.

2. Be respectful of their business.

Being professional means giving them relevant stories that are well written and presented in a format they can easily use. Your press release is among many hundreds a daily newspaper receives every day. The reporter or editor who receives the release will therefore take about three seconds to either throw your release in the trash or keep it in the system.

Here are some tips that may help save your release from the trash can.

Know your target media
Newspaper and magazine editors have a number of pet peeves, but one at the top of the list is receiving press releases of little interest to the readers of their publication. So do your homework. Read several issues of the publication. Know which writers write about which topics. What is their geographic coverage area? Is the information you want to send relevant to the readers of that publication?

Understand what is news
Many of us can get pretty excited about the products and services our companies produce. But the reality is that, unless it is truly revolutionary, most folks won't care much. And newspapers want news. So make some. Do a survey. Commission a study. Give a speech. Run a contest. Give an award. Become an authoritative source. In short, create something of value for your target media's audience.

Write your release in the language of the receiver
Don't fall in love with your own style of writing. Write your press releases in the style of the target publication. Cover the basic who, what, where, when, why, and how and then adapt the copy to a news or feature lead. Carefully examine your first paragraph. A press release is often judged by these first few sentences. Make them interesting, and make them count. If you don't have any good writers on staff, hire a freelance writer or tap in to student resources at local colleges.

While content is critical, sending your releases in the proper format will show your interest in being professional. So take the time to read and adapt your copy to the editorial guidelines produced by most publications.

Understand and be respectful of their business
Don't call reporters when they are on deadline and respond rapidly when they call you. Don't know when the deadlines are? Find out. The relationship goes both ways. If you send good, solid, well written information, it will probably get published, but remember that deadlines are measured in hours, sometimes minutes, so your part of the bargain is to cooperate with reporters when they call you for information. That's how positive media relations begin to build.

When you call to pitch a story, give a brief, succinct description of your idea and wait for their response. You'll know by the questions they ask if the story idea interests them. If the response is less than positive, let it go. Don't burn any bridges because there will be another opportunity tomorrow.

To be sure you will find some turkeys among the press. This is true in any business. You will even find some editors who will blatantly suggest that if you advertise, you'll get your releases published, a highly unethical practice. But....work with them. You'll need that relationship in the future.

Become a student
If you've done all of the above and have a good story but still can't get to first base, there is something basically wrong with your approach. To find out what it is, ASK! Find a professor of journalism, a professional public relations person, or even a reporter who is willing to review and evaluate your program. You may have to spend a few dollars for the advice, but it will be well worth it. One note of caution: Do not offer money to a reporter of one of your target publications. That will put both of you in an awkward position in the future. But there is nothing wrong with offering to pay for the expertise one has spent a career accumulating. RKB

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