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I’m looking for some quick tips on how to build relationships with journalists. What do journalists like to see from PR people? What do they dislike?
Dear Press Pleaser,
Seven ProfNet experts share their experience:
1. Pitch Relevant Information
It’s important to have background information on the journalist and their audience, says Dan Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Don’t pitch a writer for a seniors publication on Lindsay Lohan’s latest doings. Go the extra mile.”
“Ask reporters and they’ll tell you that the most annoying thing about PR people is they don’t read their outlet and don’t understand their audience,” says Abe Abrams, director of communications at The DSM Group. “Think about what the publication, blog, show, etc., covers and how.”
So if you’re pitching to a journalist you haven’t worked with before, read their latest work and think about how your client might tie in, says John W. Morgan, associate vice president for public relations at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Ask yourself: What makes your client the best to address this issue? says Abrams. Don’t focus on why your client is competent or knowledgeable — focus on what makes them the best. Are they from the biggest firm? Do they have the most unique insight? Did they found a successful upstart?
“Do not blast pitches out to media lists,” says John Goodman, president of John Goodman PR. “Often, those lists are outdated and inaccurate. Send the pitch because it’s the right story for the right reporter or producer. Media contacts open my email pitches because they know, from past experience, that they’re on target.”
And whatever you’re pitching, make sure it qualifies as real news, says Collins. Journalists hate propaganda; they will not run a free ad for your client.
2. Just Get to the Point Already!
Do not wine, dine and schmooze journalists — just pitch them stories that synch with their beat, says Goodman.
Reporters get tons of ideas and pitches per day, so you need to be short and to the point, says Jon Weiner, account manager at Capstrat. He finds that Twitter is a great way to cut through the clutter.
“A Twitter stream is crowded, but if you can find an active journalist on Twitter and tweet them a specific idea, they’re very likely going to read it,” says Weiner. “It’s tough to send a good idea in 140 characters, but if you can cut to the core of what you have to offer, it works.”
“I recently struck up a relationship with a reporter simply by tweeting him an idea and ending with ‘interested?'” says Weiner. “The reporter replied and said ‘send me the details.’ Then I fleshed out a pitch, identified my Twitter handle in the subject line of the email so it didn’t get lost, and we started talking. The idea didn’t pan out — but we struck up a relationship that ended up in him using a client of mine in a separate feature story.”
When pitching on Twitter, keep privacy in mind, notes Weiner. “Do your homework. If you find a journalist on Twitter who obviously doesn’t want to discuss work or receive ideas through that channel, don’t send them any.”
However, if the reporter regularly shares their professional work on Twitter, then it’s a decent indication that they’re open to hearing ideas that way, he says.
3. Be Efficient and Timely
“Efficiency is an important trait for the successful media relations professional,” says Morgan. “Once I identify an expert, I ask them to provide me with some context about what they would say, so the reporter has an idea of what to expect. Many reporters find that helpful as they frame their stories.”
Journalists return to PR experts when they get timely, unfettered, high-level access to experts, says Maureen Bennett, senior media relations specialist at Summit Medical Group.
For example, there was a recent incident at a pharmacy in Chatham, N.J., where some prescriptions for a pediatric medicine had accidentally been filled with a breast cancer drug. Reporters descended on the pharmacy to talk to the store manager.
“To help round out their stories, I pitched our medical expertise by inviting reporters on the scene to immediate, individual interviews with our chief medical officer (CMO). Our main medical campus was only 10 minutes away from the pharmacy, so news outlets were cleared with security before arriving to campus, and escorted directly the CMO’s office to sit with him one-on-one. No waiting, no waffling,” Bennett explains.
Keep a careful on the calendar too, says Morgan. “For example, if I know the governor is going to sign a bill into law, I arrange to videotape a faculty member with expertise in the area that the bill covers discussing why its passage is so important. The moment the governor signs the bill, I release the video to journalists covering the issue and post it on our university’s website and social media platforms.”
4. Help Reporters Tell the Story
Make every effort to the help the journalist build their story, says Collins.
For example, Collins works with lots of reporters covering medical issues. If there is no doctor available for a particular story, he tries to find people outside of his circle who can help, or forwards the query to a colleague in the medical library to look for research the writer might be able to use.
“It might not result in a media placement for my client today, but it is building the foundation for stories for tomorrow,” says Collins.
Also, read and comment on the reporter’s work, outside of pitching, says Abrams. “Say nice things, but also challenge assumptions that seem wrong. Offer information. Suggest ideas.”
5. Meet in Person, Don’t Be Pushy
“I invite reporters to come and meet our experts,” says Julian Teixeira, communications director for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “For example, we currently have a Mobilize to Vote campaign, which gets Latinos registered and voting. I invite key reporters covering the Latino vote to come to our offices and have an hour meeting with our civic engagement team.”
“This allows the reporter to meet our experts, ask questions and learn about our efforts without the stress and desire of writing a story,” he continues. “The reporter walks away with story ideas and gets to learn how NCLR experts can serve as spokespersons for future stories. And for NCLR, it allows us to meet and build a contact with a new media source.”
Ultimately, these informational meet-and-greets get us into the news in the future, says Teixeira.
Abrams also suggests bringing three good ideas to reporters at desksides or events. “Make contact, offer sources or help, and then back off and don’t be pushy,” he says.
6. Be Thoughtful of the Reporter’s Needs
“If a reporter is coming to your campus to interview a professor, be sure to reserve a parking space for them,” says Morgan. Remembering small but important details like this goes a long way toward building good rapport with journalists.
7. Do Not Annoy!
Do not call journalists at deadline, don’t call them if they prefer emails and don’t follow up on press releases or pitches that they weren’t expecting, says Collins.
Journalists also hate it when PR people try to control interviews, which is, in essence, telling them what to write, says Collins.
And don’t tell a writer you have the perfect resource for them and it turns out you don’t, adds Collins. “My first PR mentor always said, ‘Promise less and deliver more.'”
“The media is actually very easy to work with and understand,” says Collins. “If you respect reporters’ deadlines, and if you are cognizant of what they really want and give it to them, they’ll be back asking you for interviews and experts and information in the future.”
“Target appropriately and zero in on the one thing you can offer that no one else can — then make sure you deliver it on time and in full,” stresses Bennett.
“Pitches have one function: to make a reporter’s life easier. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job. Give them what they want: be quick, succinct and reliable,” says Weiner.
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.