A newspaper article or
TV spot can give your company huge, entirely free publicity, and yet it’s tough
to land those coveted spots.
Companies and PR agencies send out thousands of press releases every day, and only a small fraction of those get picked up by major news outlets. Most are either completely ignored, or end up in small publications with limited readership.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to stand out from the crowd and grab journalists’ attention. You’ll see how to go beyond impersonal press releases and build relationships with reporters, how to see the news value in what you do, and how to craft the perfect press release.
You’ll also learn what to do after you get a journalist’s attention: how to give a good interview and make sure you end up being mentioned prominently in the final story, and how to position yourself as a regular expert source.
In my ten years as a business journalist, I’ve been approached by thousands of entrepreneurs, marketing reps and PR people. I’ve seen plenty of mistakes and missed opportunities, and have also met some people who did it right. In this tutorial I’ll share with you the strategies you can use to get the attention of busy reporters and see your company featured in prestigious media outlets.
Step 1: Build Relationships
The vast majority of those thousands of daily press releases are completely untargeted. They’re posted online, and emailed in bulk to thousands of journalists at once, with no thought for whether they’re relevant to the recipients.
You reach a wide audience this way, but have very limited chances of success. Think about thousands of press releases sent to thousands of journalists, and the numbers get very big, very quickly. One study estimated that US and UK journalists receive a total of 1.7 billion irrelevant press releases every year.
A Targeted Approach
A smarter approach is to target individual journalists, build a rapport with them first, and then pitch your idea. It takes longer, but will pay off with a much higher success rate.
Start by drawing up a list of publications you’d like to be featured in. Come up with a range, from “small but achievable” to “big but harder to break in.” Also think about the full range of media: print, broadcast, and the various online options like blogs, websites, newsletters, podcasts, video channels, etc.
Then, one by one, starting with the smallest, find individual reporters to target. If you can connect with an editor, that’s fine too, but reporters tend to be hungriest for story ideas, so try them first. Reporters tend to cover specific areas or “beats,” so it’s as simple as reading the publication or searching on the website, and finding a reporter who regularly writes stories in your field.
Getting in Touch
Often, online articles will include a contact email address for the reporter, but if not, there are plenty of other ways to get in touch. Social media provide useful ways for reporters to find ideas and connect with sources, so they often have profiles: LinkedIn and Twitter are particularly fruitful.
Hold off on pitching your great idea for now. It’s helpful just to establish contact first, perhaps by emailing or tweeting to comment on the reporter’s latest article. That way you can learn more about what the reporter covers and the style of his or her stories, and start building a relationship. When you do eventually send a story idea, you’ll immediately stand out from the crowd by being known to the reporter and having a well-targeted pitch.
Step 2: See the News Value
What makes something newsworthy? It’s a complex topic, but the crucial thing to keep in mind is that it’s determined not by what you think is important, or even by what the reporter thinks is important. It’s determined solely by what the publication’s readers or viewers care about.
What Not To Do
One of the biggest mistakes people making in approaching the press is to talk about what they think is important, without saying why readers should care about it.
For example, it may be a big deal for your company that you’re opening a new office or appointing a new Chief Financial Officer, but for the most part it’s not news, because it has no impact on the average reader.
It is news, on the other hand, if your new office is creating 200 jobs for the local economy, or if your new CFO is Bill Gates. New job opportunities directly affect readers’ lives, and Bill Gates as CFO would be news because it’s unusual and has curiosity value—why would a billionaire become the CFO of a small local company?
If you made a record profit, or won an award, or got a new customer, it’s generally not news either. It’s great for your company, and you can use those things in your marketing, but don’t try to make journalists care about them. Along with new offices and appointments, those topics are the least likely to be of interest to journalists, according to that survey on irrelevant press releases.
What To Do Instead
The secret to getting media attention is to look at your company through the eyes of the reader or viewer of the publication you’re targeting. What does that person want to know? What would be interesting, or affect his or her life directly? Instead of putting your company first in the press release, give useful information for readers, proposing a story with a more indirect benefit to your company.
Here are a few ideas that generally work well:
- Find a news hook: Tying your idea to a bigger event immediately gives it more news value. With the soccer World Cup happening in Brazil, I’ve been getting pitches from insurance companies offering tips for fans on safe travel. Think about ways you can offer journalists a new angle on a popular story.
- Highlight a trend: Maybe the fact that you opened a new office isn’t news, but what if you’ve noticed more and more companies opening new offices in the downtown area, helping revitalize the neighborhood? That’s a trend, and journalists love trends. Position your news as part of a growing trend, and you’ve got a great chance of being included in a story.
- Organize a special event: This one is difficult, because special media events are happening all the time, and it’s hard to stand out. But if you’re creative and can do something unusual and authentic, an event gives a journalist a specific reason to write about your company—and often has the bonus of providing great visuals.
- Offer to comment: Maybe, instead of offering your own story, you could offer to be a source for journalists on other stories they’re working on. If you’re an accountant, offering to help financial journalists with any stories they’re writing around tax season would be a good bet. If you own a restaurant, offer to comment on the new food safety law that just went into effect.
Step 3: Craft the Perfect Press Release
So you’ve targeted publications you’d like to be featured in, and started building relationships with the relevant reporters. You’ve figured out the news value in what your company is doing, and have come up with a great idea. How should you pitch it? Here are some tips on crafting the perfect press release:
- Get to the Point: The sheer volume of press releases means that journalists give them short shrift. You need to grab their attention in the headline, and explain the story fully in the first sentence or two. It’s fine to include backup information lower down, but you have to lead with the news.
- Explain the Relevance: Even if you’re broadcasting the release widely, send it individually to the journalists you targeted in step 1, and prefix it with a short personalized note explaining why it’s relevant to their particular readers.
- Stick to the Facts: Press releases are, of course, inherently self-promotional, but you don’t have to make them sound even more so. Avoid hyperbole, and give journalists the specific facts that will convince them there’s a story for them to cover.
- Provide Extras: Of course you need to include the basic facts (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How), along with full contact details. But also be sure to give extras like images, video, charts or audio, particularly for online and broadcast media. The more you can provide, the easier you’re making it for journalists to cover the story.
- Get the Timing Right: The timing depends on the type of story, but generally the more notice you can give, the better, especially if you want journalists to cover a live event that will require travel. Keep in mind that daily news reporters will be on deadline in the late afternoon, so the best time to send a release out is overnight or in the morning—particularly Monday morning, when many reporters are meeting with their editors and looking for ideas to pitch.
Step 4: Conduct the Perfect Interview
If you do get a response to your press release, congratulations! You’ve still got some work to do, though, before you get featured. The next step is to be interviewed, and provide all the quotes and facts that the reporter needs for a successful story. Here’s the key to doing it well:
The world of journalism can move very quickly. Reporters sometimes enjoy the luxury of a long deadline, but often have to turn out a story in an hour or two. You may get called a few minutes after the press release goes out, and you must be ready to talk right then.
Even if the reporter is on a longer deadline and emails to schedule an interview, try to arrange the call as soon as possible. Reporters interview anywhere from a handful of sources to a few dozen, depending on the story. If you delay the interview, there’s a risk that the reporter will get everything he or she needs from other people. Being prompt increases your chances of being included.
Understand the Ground Rules
By default, a conversation is “on the record,” which means that the reporter can take anything you say and use it in the article, attributing it to you by name. If you’re not comfortable with that, you need to say so up front. Other options include:
- On background: the information can be used, but without identifying you specifically. It might be attributed to “a local restaurant owner,” for example.
- Deep background: the information can be used, but without even a general description of who you are.
- Off the record: the information is not for publication at all.
Unless you’re covering a very sensitive topic, though, most journalists will insist that everything is on the record.
Don’t Assume Anything
Unless it’s a specialist publication, journalists have to write for a broad readership. So they love people who explain things simply. Even if you think a journalist already knows something, or if you’ve covered it in the press release, explain it anyway. Simple explanations often provide the best quotes, and being quoted is what you’re aiming for.
Prepare Your Points, But Be Flexible
It goes without saying that you should prepare for the interview, think of likely questions, and jot down the two or three key messages that you want to convey.
However, understand that the story is no longer in your control. The reporter is the one writing the story, and may take a different angle from the one you suggested. So be prepared to change tact and answer the questions that are asked, not the ones you were expecting.
If the conversation veers into areas you’re not comfortable with, of course you’re under no obligation to answer. But keep in mind that the journalist will write the story anyway, and it’s usually better to give your perspective.
Reporters love data. Facts and figures give their story credibility and back up their points (remember the 1.7 billion press releases?). So if you’ve pitched a trending story, come up with some stats to support it, or tell the journalist where to go to find a good research study. Images are good, too, so if you have more available than you provided in the press release, offer to email them over after the call.
Step 5: Become a Regular Source
Pitching a particular story and getting featured in the press is great, but it’s even better to be featured regularly. Your goal should be to become established as an expert in your field, a reliable source that journalists call again and again.
The benefit is that you don’t have to put all that effort into contacting people and pitching ideas; the journalists call you. One thing can often lead to another. The local TV station keeps seeing your name in the local paper, so makes you a regular source on the evening news. A bigger TV network spots your interviews on the small station, and invites you for an interview. Conference organizers see you on TV, and invite you to be a keynote speaker, which makes you a more credible source for bigger newspapers. You get the picture.
Becoming a regular source is about following the first four steps repeatedly with multiple reporters. Be useful, friendly, reliable, knowledgeable and reader-focused, and you’ll have reporters calling you again and again. You can also sign up as an expert on sites that some reporters use to find sources, such as HARO, ProfNet or Media Kitty.
So now you’ve learned the right ways and wrong ways to get mentioned in the press. You know how to target reporters and build relationships, how to decide what’s newsworthy, how to pitch it correctly, and how to be interviewed successfully.
The next step is to put it into practice. Begin with the list of target publications, and then work your way through that list, starting small and building up. It will take a long time, but the time will be well spent, and you’ll soon start racking up media mentions and building your reputation and client list. It sure beats cranking out thousands of aimless press releases.