The trick to getting traditional media coverage

Wendy TownleyPicture it. You’re working away on a project, its deadline looms as menacing storm clouds or a welcoming sunrise (depending on your perspective or day of the week, of course).

The projects you’re often most proud of are those whose details you’re just itching to spill on Facebook and Twitter. So you may post a teaser photo on your blog, or tweet a very vague update with scant details that only you know. It’s how you build buzz in 2011.

When the project belongs to a client, the level of outward attention is determined long before the ink has dried on the contract. And if you’re a public relations guru, you likely have an entire communication plan in place.

As we enter a new decade that will undoubtedly overflow with technological developments, social media is the IT method of spreading the word. And it will likely remain in forms resembling today’s social media apps, and those we cannot even imagine. Yet it is important, regardless of your reach, to not ignore traditional media relations when packaging your overall buzz-building plan.

As a former newspaper reporter, it pains me to witness the decline of our beloved print publications. Across the country, newsrooms are shrinking, printing presses (heck, they’re digital these days) are slowing their pace, and the ink-stained hands I once knew as an underpaid reporter are now rather clean. There is something special about newsrooms of days gone by, of the smell of warm newspapers, the ink still slightly wet as the latest issue found a home through a satisfying thump! on newsroom desks both large and small.

I physically left the world of newspapers in 2005, but my heart has forever remained in my cluttered and teeny-tiny cubicle, complete with an old desktop computer and filthy telephone. (I managed to lift a healthy stack of those signature reporter’s notebooks on my last day, and still find myself restocking my inventory when I visit a neighborhood office supply store.)

But this essay isn’t about my passionate love affair with newspapers – although it could be. The advice I want to offer today, fellow freelancer, is the value of traditional media and media relations when creating a comprehensive communication plan for a client project or your own. Although newspapers and other print publications both large and small are experiencing declines in ad revenue and circulation, their mission remains as strong as ever: to tell stories happening in the communities they serve.

Of course social media marketing is an exciting way of storytelling, and one that each of us can control. We determine the storylines and headlines shared every day, or even every hour. And we delight when readers voice their support or share their positive comments in the most public way.

It is important, however, to not get completely swept away in the ocean of social media marketing. Traditional media relations – drafting press releases, sending pitch emails to reporters and editors, and monitoring the coverage of your client (or your own work) in any given community – still has a home in 2011, and will have for several years to come.

A great expanse of coverage can be received by a smartly placed newspaper feature, magazine profile, or radio interview. The “trick” is knowing how to get the coverage in the first place.

Many will argue that the traditional press release is dead. I disagree in volumes. Nothing will grab an overworked reporter’s attention more quickly than a brief, well written press release that features the five Ws within the first few sentences: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

Of course today’s press releases are beefed up with social media links, online videos, and the like, but the written word will always reign supreme – so long as the written word is written well.

Others say that email is passé. Perhaps, but it remains one of the ideal methods (short of picking up the phone and making a call) to make a first connection with a reporter.

When I pitch a new reporter for the first time, I keep my email very, very brief. My subject line typically offers the phrase “story idea,” while the body of my email expends only a few, brief sentences with the story I am pitching. I then attach the press release as PDF, or direct the reporter to where he or she can view the press release online. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous and courageous, I will call the reporter the next day and alert him or her to my email. I cannot stress enough the damage that a preachy, sales-like phone call or email can yield for the future of your relationship with a reporter. If the first pitch makes the reporter want to wash his or her hands after hearing from you, precious little hope remains that future and subsequent pitches will be received any better, or at all.

A reporter’s time is always more valuable than yours. I say this in jest, but when a reporter calls you on deadline, the likelihood of coverage hangs precariously on you. Yes, you may need to put your work on hold for a few hours, but the outcome will be delightful to you and/or your client. Respect how a reporter’s workday operates and understand that a slight scheduling inconvenience on your end is a gift for the reporter. They will remember you for it, and will likely call again.

Don’t forget to say thank you. Like many professions, kind comments are hard to come by. Folks primarily raise their voices in concern or complaint, but rarely offer “job well done” commentary. Do the opposite. When a reporter’s story is published or aired, and you helped move the story along, send a thank-you note. An email will suffice, but nothing says gratitude like a handwritten note. It needn’t be long, but it certainly should be sincere. Doing so reinforces your standing with the reporter, and may increase the chances of additional media coverage in the future. Working for seven years in newspapers and a few years as a TV news intern gave me great insight to the workings of a newsroom. The better you understand how reporters work and can embrace their needs, the better are your chances of media coverage now and in the future.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have a related story to tell? Please do…

4 thoughts on “The trick to getting traditional media coverage

    1. Wendy Townley

      Ray, this website is all about creative, freelance professionals. It’s a great resource on writing, marketing, anything related to our craft of creativity. Click around and see what you find. A friend told me about the Creative Freelancer Blog last year, and I’ve been a regular visitor (and contributor) ever since.

  1. Kristen Fischer

    Great points, Wendy. I totally agree–I think so many people that never got traditional news experience are quick to say that press releases are “so yesterday” but really, they’re not. It’s how the industry works! Pitching will never go out of style–even if it’s by phone or fax…not just social media!

    1. Wendy Townley

      Kristen, thank you so much for your feedback! Other folks have echoed your comments via Facebook and Twitter. The technologies may change, but the tactics have stayed the same. Solid writing and communication will always win!