When you want to promote your organization, you are provided with a variety of options. The first step is to develop a plan. You must determine the following:

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Who do you want to reach needs to know about your organization?
  • What do you want to say??
  • What kind of information is newsworthy?

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

The first and most important step in public relations planning is to understand and define what you want to accomplish through public relations. What are your objectives? Just as importantly, how will you determine (measure) your success in accomplishing these objectives? Creating a list of concrete goals can help you maintain direction in your efforts.

Who Needs to Know About Your Organization?

Now that you know what you want to do, the second step is to determine who you need to talk to.

The best way to gain insight into this question is to look from the other side of the communications channel: Of all the people that your organization deals with, who do you need to tell about new programs and products? Often your most important contacts will be your current and future partners, IT professionals in your local area, human resource managers, training and development personnel, and organizations offering competing products.

To reach your organization's public relations goals, there are many key audiences and stakeholders that your organization should regularly communicate with to gain higher visibility. The following list details a few of the most important audiences:

  • News media     Includes print, radio, television, and Internet outlets for business news, information technology news especially related to open source, vertical media (directed at a people with similar interests such as a hobby or business), human resources, colleges and universities, and organizations and enterprises dealing with information management solutions.

  • IT professionals     Includes practicing IT professionals, students, and prospects such as people considering a career change.

  • Business partners and suppliers     Includes communicating to strategic partners such as independent software vendors, training providers, and suppliers, which helps your organization become a valued business partner to these groups, each of which bring specific value to your business.

What Do You Want to Say?

The third step in public relations planning is to understand what you want to say. To attain your objectives, it is critically important to maintain message consistency when delivering you organization's messages, vision, mission, and core values to your target audiences. Consistency creates a stronger impression and helps people remember your core messages.

Although a given message may be "tweaked" or "massaged" for different audiences, the core messages should not vary.

What Kind of Information is Newsworthy?

  • Locations and launches     This kind of news is obvious. For instance, a new branch of your organization may have just opened, and you want to make people aware of the new location and offerings. Also, if you are launching a new product or have hired a local figure well-known to the community, these things are of great interest to the public.

  • Industry developments and human interest     Sometimes newsworthy information is a little less obvious. Every day happenings can be in the news. Whenever there are changes or new developments in the industry, this clearly presents an opportunity for positive exposure and media coverage in appropriate publications. For instance, how and why the change is being undertaken may become a story in itself. Perhaps the change is being driven by a dynamic guru, worthy of a magazine profile. Sometimes these stories are called "case studies" and typically are given favourable consideration by editors because of their considerable human interest appeal.

  • Numerical data and trends     Society is fascinated with numbers. The more impressive or interesting the figures (relative to competitors and the rest of the industry), the more likely media outlets are to use those numbers in their reporting.

  • Organizational announcements     Notable changes in staff or volunteers are another way of getting media exposure. The more important the position, the more newsworthy organizational announcements become.

  • Partnerships     Especially partnerships with far-reaching effects across the industry create a major news story.

  • Industry recognition     When your organization wins an award or is recognized by peers, let the world know!

The bottom line is that you can find news in almost any event. Your responsibility is to ensure that your organization becomes known and respected by editors, journalists, educators, and other stakeholders with whom you are communicating. Remember, the more respected your organization is, the more (and better) coverage you are likely to receive. The determining factor in that judgment will be the audience—the readers, viewers, and listeners who you reach.

Effective and well-organized public relations efforts require news releases and correspondences to reach an appropriate editor.

Creating a Media Contact Database

You cannot underestimate the importance of maintaining and continually updating a database of editorial contacts who have an explicit or implied interest in your organization. Directories available in your local reference library list publications of every description, giving the full particulars of their readership, editorial staff (often with contact information), circulation, publication frequency, areas of coverage, and other relevant information. Consulting these directories is the first step towards building your media database.

Time must be spent in researching names and contact information for your database. You will need to know the audiences of each publication, names of key editors, these editors' responsibilities, the dates of special-focus issues concerning communities, and more. This information will allow you to do a better job of targeting your news to the right media contacts. For instance, there may be occasions when you want your news to reach certain editors but not others. Your news may only concern a portion of your database, such as the educational community. Your research (and later, direct experience) will tell you that only certain editors will be interested. In short, there is a lot of homework to be done identifying the news media related to your area and learning the specifics about them. The more information your database contains, the more valuable the information will be to you.

Before you contact any editor, you need to know where to call, email, or write. Fortunately, there are dozens of published directories of editorial contacts. While you could easily spend thousands of dollars buying or subscribing to them, you do not need to. As mentioned above, your library probably has several subscriptions on hand.

Another way to find local media contacts and organizations is to look in your local telephone directories. Here are some categories to start you on your way (your local Yellow Pages may list these under different headings):

  • Broadcasting companies
  • News publications
  • News services
  • Newspaper feature syndicates
  • Newspapers
  • Publishers - periodicals and magazines
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations

Once you have created a list of potential editors to contact, find out as much as you can about their publication, coverage areas, and special interests. Become familiar with their publication, their website, or their broadcast. Get to know the beats (coverage areas) of specific reporters.

Maintaining Your Database

Whether you keep your editorial contact information in an electronic database (such as an ACT or DBF file) or in a traditional Rolodex, your contact information must be kept up-to-date. Editors come and go, reporters are reassigned to new beats, and publications merge or create spin-offs. You need to stay on top of these changes. Review your media contact list at least every three to four months. Contact appropriate people in each organization to get updates of names, email addresses, and phone numbers. Through this exercise you may discover new targets to whom you can pitch your story.

Contacting the Editors

Letter of Introduction

When contacting an editor for the first time, you should take pains to get your relationship off to a good start. This is best accomplished by sending a well-crafted letter (or email) of introduction prior to issuing your first news release.

Even if you have been involved in media relations in another capacity, a letter of introduction can help establish a "new era" of cooperation between you (in your new public relations role) and the editor. After all, a successful public and media relations program is all about relationships—successful ones.

What must your letter accomplish? Consider your goals carefully, because this letter can do a great deal for your organization.

First, reaching the right editor or reporter is extremely important. Then, you will want to get that editor's help in identifying other professionals who may be interested in receiving and conveying the news. These professionals include freelance writers (who write speculatively or on assignment, then sell specific stories to publications), editors in related areas (business and feature editors), industry spokespeople, and so on. Your letter also needs to articulate why this editor will likely be interested in your organization's story and why his or her audience will be interested.

The primary purpose for the letter of introduction is to open the lines of communication and to make yourself or your designated spokesperson available. Be sure to give your full name and contact information. Most importantly, do not forget to include your email and website addresses. Email is the preferred method of communication in the journalistic community. Make corresponding and dealing with you easy for your media contacts. This is critical to the success of any media and public relations program.

If you include broadcast in your public relations program, you will need to adjust the terminology accordingly. Instead of editors, you will be corresponding with news directors and producers; instead of readers, you will be referring to listeners, viewers, or an audience. No matter what their job description is, remember that you are dealing with actual people. The more personable you are in your correspondence, the more likely you are to see results.

Using the Phone

Regardless of the size and scope of your media relations program, look for an opportunity to directly contact at least some of the editors and journalists important to your organization. The telephone is a tremendous ally in any public relations program. A phone call establishes person-to-person contact, lends credibility to your public relations effort, and helps your contact to associate a name to the news releases you subsequently send to them. A few moments on the phone, either as a prelude or a follow-up to a news release, not only draws attention to your organization but can also impart a sense of immediacy and urgency that may provide the edge you need to acquire editorial coverage of your story.

When calling an editor, always immediately identify yourself and your organization. Next, ask if the editor is on deadline. If their answer is "Yes," don't tie up their time but offer to call back in a day or two and then do so. Editors are known for their extraordinary memory—they never forget a nuisance or a courtesy.

If the editor is not on deadline, then state immediately why you are calling, saying something like this:

"Hello, I'm (name) with (my organization), and I'm calling to alert you to our announcement of (news topic). I want you to know that I'm available to you for any additional information or an interview, now or any time in the future. Give me a call at (phone number) or email me at (email address)."

Look what the dialogue above accomplishes. You have identified yourself and your organization, stated your business succinctly, and offered your services as a liaison. Now let the editor decide what to do. If they seem to want to get off the phone quickly, don't worry. They may have something urgent demanding their attention or a story that needs to be filed immediately. You can always call back or have the editor return your call later. Listen carefully to the editor's recommendations for calling them at another time.

While most editors and reporters are busy, they are seldom rude (in fact, the contrary) and usually cooperative. If the editor asks why you are calling, or has other questions, be prepared to answer. As in any business situation, always do your homework. If necessary, write down potential questions and answers and rehearse beforehand. Nothing irritates a busy editor or reporter more than dealing with a public relations representative who is unprepared to answer basic questions.

If you cannot answer all the questions, promise to find the answers and send the information by email. Be sure to do this in a timely fashion. Editors appreciate quick responses and will give more attention to people who can give them the information they are seeking in a timely manner. This is a very important consideration.

If the editor gives you a "No thanks, not interested" response—which may happen quite frequently at the beginning—you should ask if there is someone else on staff who would be interested in your information. If there is time, and the editor seems receptive to sharing information (listen carefully to their tone of voice and phone manner), you might also ask if there is anything special about your event they are looking for, now or in the future. After all, the less you waste of each other's time, the more productive your relationship will be.

Once editors know of you and your organization, there may be times when they contact you directly. For example, the publications you have targeted may occasionally feature an editorial focus on event. Check the editorial calendars of these publications on a regular basis. Periodicals plan their issues two to three months in advance of the publication date, so you need to be proactive in pitching (telling) your organization's story ahead of time. Editorial calendars are often made available on the publication's website. They are also usually available free of charge from the publication's advertising department. If all else fails, contacting the publication's editorial assistant and making a polite request should yield positive results.

Another important way to use the phone is to find out who you should be contacting at a specific publication. The receptionist is usually cooperative and very knowledgeable about this. You may end up talking to a lot of different people before you get the answers you need, but public relations is far more effective when you deliver your news to the right people.

Using the Phone

"The Pitch" (that is, "selling" your story) has changed over the years. Pitching is often not done just by regular mail, telephone, or even fax anymore. These days, most contacts are made through email.

Before sending anything, you should try to find out how a particular editor or journalist likes to receive pitches and in what format the pitch should be presented. Every editor or journalist has their own preferences for receiving news releases and pitches. Knowing whether to call, fax, or email makes a world of difference—and may even be the difference between getting your news read and covered, and not. While sending the same email to 20 editors is quick, easy, and painless, your pitch may not get the attention your organization deserves.

Though e-mail has simplified and certainly quickened the transfer of information between public relations professionals and their media contacts, email has some drawbacks. Email is not as personal as a phone call, as quick as glancing over a fax, or as formal as a letter sent by post. The ease and ubiquity of email can sometimes make building a working relationship with certain editors or journalists more difficult.

For example, a particular news reporter (who shall remain anonymous) does not like receiving pitches by email. In her words: "Email tells a one-sided story in its pitch. It makes it impossible to ask questions regarding some uncertain aspects." Because of this, this reporter prefers to be contacted by phone. She will only read and accept email if the email relates to her beat and covers all the points she wants covered.

David Andelman of the New York Daily News prefers receiving pitches and news releases by fax, which he can read instantly without having to print them out. "I am [always] getting an abundance of press news," he says. "But at least with faxes, I can filter through them easier and quicker than I can with emails, deciding what is trash and what I can use. Don't waste my time. We are a daily paper."

Samuel Brittan, an economic commentator with the Financial Times in London, likes old-fashioned snail mail. "There are problems which occur with email, be it privacy issues, bounce-backs, or just an over-abundance," he says. "I simply prefer to be mailed directly through the postal service."

Carrie Donovan, an editorial assistant for The Washington Post, states: "Initially, I prefer postal mail pitches, since I receive artwork and photos for stories. Images sent via email tends to be problematic, either too small for us to run or it may look bit-mapped (jagged-looking)." She also observes that emailed releases are more likely to have missing information, something as seemingly obvious as an address to an event. Like most media professionals, Ms. Donovan wants all the facts delivered coherently and comprehensively. Failure of a public relations representative to do this is enough to turn her off completely.

Whatever method you use to correspond with an editor or reporter, always remember that media people are extremely busy. After all, they live and die by deadlines. Although you may want to know if your contact has received your pitch or news release, phoning them is generally not recommended. Most editors don't have the time to answer follow-up calls or engage in lengthy conversation. This again underscores the importance of giving them all the information in one "neat and clean" delivery. As Mr. Andelman bluntly states, "We aren't idiots. If you faxed it to us and you didn't get an error message back, you know we received it just fine. And if we decide to use it, chances are we will contact you for more information."

First impressions count. The best advice we can give when you are dealing with a news editor for the first time is to tailor the pitch specifically to that editor's beat. Then sit back and hope for the best. Although this approach sounds unpredictable, this is the nature of public relations.

By corresponding with editors in the way they prefer (which may not be the easiest or most convenient way for you), you will set a good impression for your organization. With persistence and good manners, you may eventually become an authority to whom journalists and editors willingly turn for commentary.

Pitching for Different Media

The news release, the most common way in which you will communicate news, mostly serves print-based media such as newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. Pitching stories for television and radio will be somewhat different.

Print-based Media

Every publication has a lead time for accepting releases and pitches. Generally, daily and weekly newspapers have quite short lead times, while monthly or quarterly magazines may have a lead time of several months. Each publication will also have requirements regarding text and graphic formats. For instance, they may accept only plain-text documents with no formatting or require graphical files (such as photos) to be submitted in a particular file type and resolution.

Although you do not need to become an expert in desktop publishing and print production, having a general knowledge of these areas will be extremely beneficial. Familiarize yourself with commonly used text formats (such as Microsoft Word for print and HTML for the Internet) and graphical formats (such as eps, jpeg, and gif). For important communications, you may wish to engage the services of a copy editor, graphic designer, or other publishing professional.

The Internet today works similarly to the print media. Speed is paramount for this medium. News can be posted immediately, without waiting for the printing presses to roll. Space limitations are not as much of a concern as they are for print, and the online edition will often publish stories that do not fit in the printed edition.

Naturally, online editors prefer to receive your news electronically. Targeting the right online editors can result in almost immediate posting of your news. Be sure to build relationships with online editors as you would for print editors. The online world is a growing segment that you simply cannot afford to ignore.

Television and Radio

Studies show that television has replaced newspapers as the primary medium from which people get their news. These studies also found that TV news had a much higher credibility rating than newspaper coverage. Thus, specialty TV programs may offer an excellent opportunity for communicating your story. Such shows may include: local TV news shows, programs produced by community TV stations, business or information technology shows, and educational shows.

Because television emphasizes visuals, you should look for stories and angles that permit interesting or engaging video footage. (There is nothing duller than â$=talking heads.â$) TV news producers and editors like action, especially fast-paced action. They also favor stories with a local twist. Try and localize your story, which means making the news relevant and appealing geographically to the television station concerned.

Radio interviews are another excellent vehicle for publicizing your organization and activities. Contact your local radio station and pitch yourself as an interview candidate to the news director or assignment editor. Know that you must have a compelling and convincing answer to the question, "Why should our listeners be interested?"

We further explore the characteristics of different media, so that you can customize your pitches to each one.