Top Ten Media Relations Tips for 2011

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1.   Make Your Own List

Your personalized list is more important than ever in the era of mass layoffs at news organizations and everyday changes in which online news publications cover our organizations and issues. It’s simply not possible to craft a new list of print, broadcast, and online journalists from scratch each time you plan a media outreach campaign. Likewise, a media list allows you to keep track of journalists who have covered you in the past and are familiar with your work—and if more than one person in your organization works with reporters, it can be a good spot to keep track of who contacted which journalist most recently. But make sure one person is responsible for maintaining the list… that way you’ll know who to hold accountable for keeping it up to date!

2. Know What News Is

In metro news—daily newspapers, TV news programs, news services, and other outlets that serve diverse audiences—it’s truer than ever that just because a cause is worthy, does not mean it’s newsworthy. “Newshole” (the space available for news content as opposed to ads or other elements of a paper or program) has shrunk, so has personnel. With less space and time for news stories, the threshold for what’s seen as news is even higher than before.  The story must be new, unusual or important, and must affect a lot of people outside your organization.

This may seem obvious, but some publicists forget this. Events that may be vitally important to your organization may not be news. These include benefits, annual board meetings, board member elections, annual reports and successful funding requests.

One thing hasn’t changed: news often depends on controversy and conflict. If your organization is not ready for controversy, or is not ready to join a battle over public policy issues, you may not make the news much.

3. For Maximum Impact, Call First

No matter how well written, your news release alone probably won’t sell your story. You must call the media, yourself, to pitch your story. Reporters, editors and producers make most decisions from these calls. News releases supplement but never replace these calls. Increasingly, many journalists say that they prefer to receive pitches via e-mail. Obviously, it depends to some extent on the individual—and the rules are different for online—but we still encourage you to pick up the telephone.

News releases and emails get overlooked in newsroom chaos, or sometimes they just don’t capture attention the way your persuasive voice can. Callers should be polite but persistent, brief and to the point: “Do you have a minute for me to pitch you a story?” It helps to be near your computer, so you can quickly replace or supplement the original release—which may have been lost or misplaced. The proper order for working to place a story is call-email-call: pitch the story, make sure the reporter on the other end is at a minimum willing to receive your release before you send it, then follow up to determine if she is interested in covering your story.

Don’t be shy. Calling reporters and editors may be the most difficult part of media relations, but they expect you to call. Try calling in the morning, and ideally earlier in the week, to avoid afternoon and evening deadlines. Leave voice mail messages, but call back, too. Be persistent. Next to nothing gets printed or broadcast in major media without some kind of phone contact.

4. Shorten and Brighten News Releases

Even small, non-daily publications are drowning in news releases. These releases get skimmed in a matter of seconds and most are thrown out. To avoid this fate put everything on one page, give it a punchy headline with an active verb, avoid shop talk or “proposalese,” and put the most important and intriguing information about your event or issue in a lead sentence or two.

The lead must get right to the heart of your event or issue. Use superlatives: “The first, the only,” etc. Your news release can take the form of a media alert–a one-page memo that provides information by identifying the “Who…What,…When,…Where & Why of the story. (See Elements of a Media Alert on page XX.) You can find a media alert generator at our Web site, www.communitymediaworkshop.org, where you input the Who-What-When-Where-Why for your release and generate a one-page document ready to print out on your own letterhead.

A news release is longer than a media alert. It:

  • Tells your story at length, usually one to two pages.
  • Uses “objective” journalistic style (like a news story might look); opinions must be presented as quotations from leaders.
  • Tells your story as you want it to be told.
  • Uses an attention-grabbing headline.
  • Includes the name and number of a 24-hour contact (work and home numbers must be included).

5. Use the Daybook

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that all the nightly news shows and the next day’s newspapers seem to agree on major events of the day, one answer is the daybooks. Specialized outlets whose audience is other journalists, daybook services compile a list of events likely to make news and send them out daily to subscribers. Daybooks in Chicago include:

  • The Sun-Times’ STNGWire (short for Sun Times News Group Wire).
  • The Chicago Tribune City Desk has its own internal list of news events that is shared within the corporation’s news outlets, including the Tribune, CLTV, WGN-TV and radio, and Hoy.
  • AP Chicago’s Daybook.

Check the Quick Contact Sheet in this section for information on how to get your news event on the schedule.

6. Plan News Conferences Sparingly

Before calling a news conference, make sure you need one and make sure reporters are planning to attend. Press conferences work best if your issue is hot, if your announcement has an element of controversy, and if you need to clarify complex information. They work better if you provide some kind of visual opportunity for TV crews. Charts, professionally prepared videotaped supplements, and interesting symbolic locations are often necessary to get your story on the air. Print media rely on press conferences less than broadcast media. Print reporters prefer one-on-one interviews or a combination of emailed information and phone interviews.

7. Use Online News Publications, Your Own Sites and Social Media

In the ever-evolving media landscape, online news sites, community blogs and social media channels have become more important than ever to get the word out. Think about bloggers who might be interested in your story. Although many bloggers don’t take formal pitches in the same way as traditional media, they do appreciate a heads up via email about an issue or a story that their audience might be interested in.

Make the most out of the channels over which you have more control—your organization’s website, facebook page and twitter account, to name a few. Highlight your event or report on your home page, tweet out key findings or pertinent information, post a video on facebook to put a face on the story you’re trying to tell. These are just a few simple ways to get the online buzz going, which is vital in the new media landscape.

And don’t forget community and specialty newspapers (some of which operate solely online now as well). These outlets often will give your story more space and consideration. They are frequently short-staffed and under-budgeted, so they are more likely to use your news releases as written. Take advantage of these opportunities.

8. Develop a Feature Story

Organizations that don’t make much news can still gain media attention in feature and special sections (real-estate, jobs and business, community calendars, etc.)  Every organization should:

•  Determine what media your group wants to reach.

•  Identify the sections and columns suitable for your group’s information.

•  Call targeted reporters, columnists, and editors.

Your organization’s programs can make good feature stories, provided there is evidence its programs work well. Remember that even feature stories rely on a sense of drama and conflict involving inspiring personal stories, anecdotes, “horror stories” and “success,” “victory,” or amazing transformation stories of things that go right—especially against great odds.

9.  Use Newstips

Community groups and other not-for-profits can reach the media through Newstips, the grassroots news service published by Community Media Workshop. Newstips has provided Chicago-area media outlets with hundreds of story and source ideas since 1989. Each issue goes out to nearly 300 media outlets. Current and back issues of Newstips—through 1996— are published on the Workshop’s website at www.communitymediaworkshop.org/newstips.

Newstips inform the media of stories, trends, community-based programs, events and movements that spring from Chicago’s neighborhoods—but that may have been overlooked by the media. Newstips help lead the media to stories and sources they may not learn of anywhere else. Newstips works more like a news service than mouthpiece for not-for-profits. It does not charge nonprofits for its coverage, nor will it cover non-news events. Email Curtis Black, Newstips Editor, at curtis@newstips.org, or call 312-369-7783 for more information.

10.  Stay in Touch with Us at the Community Media Workshop

If you have more questions and you’re a nonprofit group, you can:

  • Participate in our regular workshops.
  • Benefit from our informal media consulting by calling us.
  • Ask us to design a custom workshop for your group.
  • Use our Newstips.
  • Call the Workshop with questions at 312-369-6400, email cmw@newstips.org, or fax us at 312-369-6404.

One more thought: when you get media attention, don’t stop there. Take full advantage of your success by clipping the article and photocopying it, or taping your broadcast story and showing it to others. You can post it on a bulletin board, mail it or email it to members and board members, or use it as part of your website, media packets or multimedia packages to lend more prestige to your work. Good luck with your communications efforts and don’t forget to feel free to call us with questions and to let us know how it goes!

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