Guest Blog: On the record - lessons from a decade of working with reporters
On paper, media relations sounds simple. You have a spokesperson with something to say, so you write a pitch, send it to a reporter, schedule an interview and the next day your client is featured in a story (preferably above the fold in the Wall Street Journal). This may be the case if you’ve been hired to do media relations for Amazon or Google, but for the average PR professional, it’s far from the norm. In fact, working with the press is often an uphill battle with more unwritten rules than baseball.
When I first got into PR, I naively thought that media relations would be as simple as the scenario mentioned above. But I quickly realized that this was not the case, and I’ve learned a great deal over the years since then about the right way and the wrong way to work with the press. These lessons have been gained through great media placements and happy clients, but mostly from a long list of missed opportunities and awkward exchanges. Here are a few key ones:
Nothing is off the record…ever. Nothing makes me cringe more than when a client utters the words “off the record” during an interview (and I’ve had clients curse and talk about illegal drugs during interviews). Rule #1: nothing is EVER off the record. If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it during an interview. This rule, along with other interview best practices, should be shared with all client spokespeople before they ever get on the phone with a reporter.
They want stories, not just sources. A national business reporter once told my colleague, “Sources are a dime a dozen; what I need are stories.” Having an engaging, knowledgeable spokesperson is a valuable asset, but that doesn’t mean that a reporter is going to want to talk to them. Reporters receive hundreds of emails a day offering them “expert” sources. To really set yourself apart, bring them compelling and timely stories that would be of interest to their readers.
PR professionals are often viewed as a necessary evil. Some reporters don’t mind, or even welcome, working with PR professionals – but that’s not always the case. Some will try to go around you when possible, and become annoyed when you do get involved. The trick is to not take it personally. Have your clients or internal executives loop you in when a reporter contacts them directly, and show that you’re there to help, not interfere. And if the reporter does come to you as a last resort after unsuccessfully reaching out to a client directly, play nice and be as helpful as possible. This will get you one step closer to securing coverage, and just maybe, in time, you’ll be able to win them over.
Relationships mean a lot, but not everything. While a strong relationship with a reporter can be very beneficial, it doesn’t guarantee that every pitch will result in an interview or that every interview will result in coverage. It does, however, increase your chances of having your email read or call returned. They may not always bite on a pitch, but getting them to look at it is half the battle. Just be patient. Like any relationship, it takes time, and you’ll need to establish a track record of offering strong, relevant storyline angles and putting them in touch with knowledgeable spokespeople when they need them (especially when they have a tight deadline).
Not every interview results in ink. This is probably the most frustrating lesson I’ve learned while working with the press. You can draft the perfect pitch, secure interest from a reporter, prep the spokesperson, facilitate an excellent interview, then the article comes out and there’s not even a mention of your company or client. This scenario does happen, and the important thing is give your spokespeople the best possible chance to be included. Educate them on what the reporter is looking for and the type of information they can share that would add value to the story.
You’re often going to have to follow up – again and again and again. There’s always news to covered, so reporters are constantly busy writing stories, following leads, sitting in meetings and sorting through a never-ending stream of emails. This craziness often leads to your emails getting overlooked or an opportunity getting put on the back burner. It doesn’t mean that a reporter isn’t interested; it just means that you’re going to have to follow up – often multiple times. The trick is doing so without being a pest. Learn a reporter’s preferred method of contact, how often you should contact them and other pet peeves he or she may have. This can greatly impact whether you establish a good relationship or will be viewed as a necessary evil.
While working with the press can be challenging at times, when done correctly, it can greatly help your client or internal spokespeople position themselves as an industry thought leader, increase brand awareness and hopefully, generate leads. It’s important to understand how best to work with reporters and help educate any potential spokespeople on how to become a go-to resource for them.
Stephen Dye, Senior Account Manager, Outlook Marketing Services