"Selling" Your Story to the Media

Clearly, editors and producers have to know the interests of their audiences. Often this knowledge comes from the editors' strong identification with their readers, which can develop into an almost paternal attitude. Editors are constantly making decisions about what their readers will and won't see—any editor would correctly say that is their job. Part of this judgment is based on what the editor feels the readers are currently interested in, and part is based on what the editor feels the readers should or will be interested in. An astute editor keeps their sights as much on the future as on the present.

Keep in mind that the role of the news media has never been confined to just reporting the news, but also includes analysis and interpretation. Analysis and interpretation are considered the domain of "experts," which presents a perfect opportunity for specialists in your organization to share their knowledge and bring visibility to your organization.

Editors, being journalists, abide by the five Ws tradition of reporting: who, what, where, when, and why (with an unofficial "how"tagging along). Always include clear, engaging answers to the five Ws in all news releases. Also, you can use the five Ws as a guideline for how to most effectively catch the attention of editors.

The way in which you present this information is crucial to being accepted by an editor as newsworthy for their audience. You have to "tell a story," make the news interesting and relevant, and choose an appropriate time and place to present the story.

Who

"Who" usually consists of your organization, spokespersons, and authorities quoted in your news releases. Your organization and those speaking as representatives must be presented as professional, authoritative, influential, and with strong credentials for speaking on matters related to your industry. By positioning your organization in this way, you have a much better chance of generating visibility and prestige.

The goal is to make your organization a recognized authority in your field. With this distinction, any time you issue a statement, your news will draw the attention of editors whose readers are interested in the specific work you do. All things being equal, the more influential your spokesperson, the better the chance your news has of being selected.

What

The "what" is the subject of your release—a new application, a new appointment, or any interesting event you choose to announce. Naturally, unusual or exciting announcements have a better chance of being covered. Anything you can do to make your story stand out from the ordinary will be viewed as a refreshing change and will increase the chance of your story being published.

If the "what" in your story is a personnel appointment (either paid or volunteer), look for some human interest in either the person or the job at hand. If this person is a well-known event expert or a pillar of their local community, all the better. The more noteworthy the individual, the more newsworthy the story.

If the "what" is an event such as a trade show, that is a plus. Editors regard events as more urgent and newsworthy than other announcements.

Where

The "where" of your release plays a key role. As you begin to understand public relations, you will appreciate the role of staging events to generate news. Since the media appreciates visuals, try to produce events with images as well as a pertinent story.

In planning a pitch or a release, ensure that you clearly indicate the address of every event you hope to have reporters attend. Reporters' time is wasted if they have to call for directions to every event. A special media contact person is a good idea to have at all events. This person can prevent reporters from missing important or visual parts of events. Be aware of upcoming events or activities that you might be able to capitalize on or borrow interest from. Again, the goal is promote the unusual, the unique, the unexpected that will pique the editor's curiosity or sense of humor—and get your story into print.

When

Remember that for most organizations, "when" can be just about any time. There is no need to wait for once-a-year events (like trade shows) to provide news. With creative thinking, you can come up with news stories that capitalize on current events. For example, news about the economy and what proprietary operating systems cost organizations to run can provide a background for event news. New computer applications running on event also present rich opportunities.

"When" is extremely important in terms of releasing the news. For instance, if you are publicizing special events or trade show appearances, you want to allow ample time for an editor to assign a reporter to cover the story (if the news is deemed of interest). If the editor doesn't have enough time to assign a reporter to cover your event, you can count on no reporters being available.

Fortunately, though, while timing is critically important, avoiding bad timing is easy. The first rule is always to provide a reasonable amount of advance notice. For news-breaking media such as radio, television, and some newspapers, two days is an absolute minimum, and a week is more prudent. For magazines and trade journals, one to two weeks is the minimum in most cases, and three to four weeks is even better.

The second rule is to use your common sense and avoid scheduling pitches when you know the editor is on deadline or is involved with other events. Also avoid periods when the editor is working with little or no support staff (such as when reporters are away at an important trade show). Generally, business hours between 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. is best, since this gives reporters time to write and file their stories. Mondays and Fridays are always more difficult than midweek, but don't be afraid to ask if the editor prefers specific days.

If you are requesting reporters attend and cover an event, never ask the editor to confirm their attendance. The editor will not appreciate the pressure, and besides they cannot guarantee they will have the resources (reporters and camera operators) at the appointed time. News changes by the second. A reporter may be ready to go to your event and, at the last minute, be reassigned to something else. This happens all the time, so don't take the rejection personally.

If you show respect for the editor's time, they will appreciate your consideration and may be more likely to cover at least some of your stories.

Why

So far, we have discussed who the news media is interested in, what news is most likely to be covered, and where and when you are going to make your pitch. Now, in looking at the "why" of your organization's story, we will address two questions. First, why did your news item come to pass, and second, why should an editor (and their readers, listeners, or viewers) find your event newsworthy?

Unless there is something terribly interesting about the who, what, where, or when, "why" is the single most compelling factor available to an editor in determining newsworthiness. Why is the news important to the audience? Why do they need to know about this? Why is your particular event unusual or out of the ordinary?

Most organization's activities can be analyzed in terms of their cause and/or their effect. The more you can identify causes or effects in your story, the better chance your organization has of receiving coverage. As an example, if there is a trend of event being increasingly used in the enterprise, there must be a reason why. Giving the editor just a few of these reasons can make your story more newsworthy than just a simple, bland announcement. Even including some statistics to support your why will likely have a tremendous effect.

The same principle holds true for something as seemingly mundane as a new personnel selection. Why was there a vacancy? Why was this person selected to fill the spot? Adding either or both pieces of information to the release greatly increases the news interest.

One of the cardinal rules of media and public relations is: "Never promote features, always promote benefits." A feature is any specific aspect that makes a product or service unique; features belong to products or services. A benefit is an advantage gained by the user in selecting a specific product or service; benefits belong to users. What a product or service does is nowhere near as meaningful as why there is some advantage or benefit to the user.

You don't need to completely ignore describing features, but you do need to present them in the context of their benefits to the end user. The reason for doing this is simple. Readers are potential users, and the better job you do of relating to the user, the more you will attract readers.

If your release is about an event, there are numerous "whys" you need to address. Why now? Why is your organization involved or being a sponsor? Why would anyone want to come to the event?

Be proactive and open in sharing the causes and anticipated effects of these accomplishments. Don't leave the editor wondering: "So what?" Failing to provide answers to why your activity is news is a sure-fire way of getting your release "filed" in the recycle bin.

How

Cause and effect, and explaining why your news is happening, will very naturally lead to the "how" of your story. How did this come to pass? How are you accomplishing this? How did your organization decide to embark on this new and exciting initiative? How will this change affect people and the marketplace? Describing the hows gives color and interest to your story.

Do's and Don'ts When Dealing with the News Media

When pitching your organization's story to news editors, there are fundamental do's and don'ts that you as a public relations professional should follow.

Do's

Do introduce yourself to different media editors, journalists, and freelancers by sending them an email note or by inviting them out for coffee or lunch. Bring along some background information or a few pages from your website to explain what your organization is all about.

Do follow up after the meeting with thank-you note, mentioning that you will be in touch as appropriate. This is important to set the stage for future dialogue.

Do let them know what your goals are and what special events, news, or programs you have coming up.

Do send out news releases by email about two weeks in advance, when you have a special event planned. Send a follow-up email a few days later. Phone again at a convenient time before the event to suggest a possible meeting or interview at the event. The bigger the event, the more advance notice should be given.

Do tailor your pitch for the needs of each medium. For example, set up plenty of photo opportunities for television media, human-interest stories for print, and interviews for radio.

Do give them the name of someone who has a personal experience to tell. Remember that the media loves a good story. Real life stories engage readers and makes for better copy than just statistics relating to event and open source.

Do ensure that you or your designated spokesperson is available for interviews at a moment's notice; otherwise much of your efforts will be in vain. Both of you, of course, should do your homework and rehearse questions and answers in advance. You should have facts, statistics, and anecdotes in your head, ready to use.

Don'tss

Don't send out a pitch or news release with vague, general statements. Your story has to show not tell, and you must convince the editor to cover the news that promotes your organization rather someone else's. Getting editorial coverage is fiercely competitive.

Don't ever tell the media what you want from them. Instead, ask them about the kinds of stories they're looking for, or if there are any other reporters in their newsroom who would be interested in event and open source. By learning what they want, you can tailor your communications to get what you want.

Don't underestimate the importance of less prominent media like community newspapers, cable TV, trade journals, and special-interest newsletters. Look at the entire spectrum of news media for different angles.