Public relations professionals act on behalf of their organization, so their role is to be an advocate for their brand. This role often includes providing information to the media in the hope that it will be published. It also can mean bypassing media gatekeepers and publishing newsworthy information directly to intended audiences in ways that may attract media attention as a byproduct. Finding and creating newsworthy information requires a firm understanding of three key points:
- News value: timeliness, prominence, proximity, significance, unusualness, human interest, conflict, newness
- News angles: what is going to be most interesting to a journalist and their audience
- Successful pitches: how to break through a sea of clutter and competing messages
A large part of the public relations profession involves working with the media. PR practitioners garner publicity that benefits a client and, in most cases, mass media is the preferred channel for reaching the public, as most audiences assign more credibility to mainstream media coverage than other sources of information. Therefore, learning how to develop and manage relationships with reporters and editors is critical to effective communication.
The primary benefit for journalists is the easy access to story ideas and sources. Reporters spend a large amount of time and effort gathering information in order to write a story. Working with public relations professionals cuts down on the time needed to find information, validate it, and publish the story. Public relations practitioners benefit from media relations because it secures free publicity and promotion for a client. By using media as a promotional tool, they are able to reach a large audience without high costs.
8.1. Understanding News Values
Newsroom experience cements a PR practitioner’s understanding of the news values media use to choose what stories to publish. In the public relations role, look for stories that have strong news value or draw connections that create newsworthy content.
- Pitch new information or events
- Relate company information to breaking or current news, anniversaries of important events, or holidays
- Find something new that hasn’t been covered before or find new uses for old products
- Embrace a thought leader as a spokesperson
- Tie information to someone with star power
- Seek local connections and angles
- Tailor messages and angles for the readership of different news outlets
- Honestly assess what company news affects a substantial number of people and what those effects are
- Look for “nuggets” you haven’t heard before or aspects of your client or their operations that are somehow extraordinary
- Humanize your story—people like to hear about other people
- Different views are engaging; controversy fuels discussion and stimulates the mind
The priority of these news values shifts based on the media outlet. Familiarize yourself with any media outlets you plan to pitch, as well as the nature of their readers or viewers so that you only reach out with potential news stories that fit their format and audience.
Media interest also can be attracted by other content:
- Special events
- Contests and giveaways
- Polls, surveys, or other data
- Top ten lists or “report cards”
- Publicity stunts
- Rallies and protests
- Anniversaries or milestones
- Babies and exotic or cute animals (yes, really)
But keep in mind that reporters and their editors don’t like to feel used or tricked. They might not cover events that seem arranged only to generate news. They key is to be creative and fresh enough that they will define what you are doing as legitimate news according to their definitions.
Students interested in careers in public relations and related fields greatly benefit from media and newsroom experience. Familiarity with media needs speeds a PR practitioner’s ability to provide useful content (hint: not just a talking head on camera, lot of visuals and B-roll). Public relations professionals without experience in a newsroom may not appreciate the tight and constant deadlines journalists face or the information and resources needed to create an objective news story. Corporate environments often move at a slower pace where decisions and messages require several layers of approval and corporate policies and politics can come into play.
As with any professional relationship, there are “do’s and don’ts” to be aware of when developing relationships with journalists. Take the time to research reporters or bloggers to identify those who will help you achieve your organization’s publicity goals. Once you’ve found an appropriate journalist or blogger, think carefully about how you plan to pitch your story to the individual. Avoid gimmicky or hyped-up press releases; they may catch the reporter’s attention, but for the wrong reason. Also avoid jarring language such as “urgent,” “must read,” or “extremely important,” even if you need to secure media coverage quickly.
In general, developing a rapport with journalists takes time, strategy, skill, and practice.
Lessons learned writing for daily newspapers and magazines that help in the PR world:
- Deadlines are life and death in the news business. Once you get a request for information, it’s vital to find out when it’s needed. Ask about it.
- A deadline is final. Don’t expect extensions or give excuses. Find a way to get it done on time or submit the best you’ve got before deadline.
- It stinks when PR people don’t respect deadlines or return calls. This made me eternally committed to responding quickly to media inquiries, even if just to tell them I was still working on an answer or source for their story from within my organization.
- Be persistent and resourceful. If one source doesn’t return a call, try again or try a different source.
- Get it right. Triple check spellings, question all facts, ask if you’re not sure, step away for coffee and come back for a final proofread. Do whatever is in your power to be completely accurate.
- Work fast. The more you work under the pressure of deadline, the better you get at producing accurate and well-written content quickly. Good time management and the ability to do good work quickly has never been more important.
8.2. Pitching a Media Story
Simply contacting the media will not guarantee coverage for your client. You have to persuade the journalist that your story idea is newsworthy. Public relations professionals typically pitch to reporters, editors, bloggers, and social media influencers. Pitches can take place via email, phone calls, and increasingly through Twitter. The channel you choose for your pitch depends upon the intended individual’s preference.
Pitching is a skill that requires creative thinking, persuasive communication skills, and knowing how your story idea benefits the reporter and the audience. Your pitching skills can improve with time and practice. You will feel more confident reaching out to reporters if you make pitches regularly.
Before you send an email pitch or call a reporter, have a solid understanding of your key audience. Carefully examine the interests, preferences, media consumption behaviours, and key demographic information associated with that group. Then you can more accurately select which media outlet will help reach the target audience.
Go where your audience is located. For example, as you conduct research about your target audience, you might learn that members read blog posts more than news articles. Therefore, reaching out to bloggers could be more beneficial than targeting news reporters. Place your message or story in media outlets that your intended audience frequently visits or reads.
One of the most common complaints from journalists about public relations pitches involves the use of mass emails. Generic pitches sent out to anyone and everyone come across to reporters and bloggers as careless and can compromise your credibility among media professionals. Remember, reporters are going to look at how your story will appeal to their specific readers; therefore, your pitch needs to be strategic. Failure to keep this in mind may result in a rejected pitch or no response at all.
Before you pitch to a particular media outlet, be sure to research which specific writer within the organization can help you target your audience. Each reporter covers a different topic or “beat.” Reading some of a reporter’s previous stories will give you an indication of whether they are the right person to cover your story. Let’s say your client is a restaurant that wants to publicize the opening of a new location. A reporter who covers food topics and brands, lifestyle topics, or the restaurant or entertainment industries would be the most logical choice to write your story.
Writing the Pitch
Now that you’ve done your homework on the audience, media outlet, and specific writer, pay close attention to how you craft your pitch message.
The subject line is especially important if you’re using email. It needs to be creative enough to catch the attention of the writer; however, avoid exaggerated phrases or visual gimmicks such as all capital letters. Do not use generic headlines such as “Story Idea” or “Cool Upcoming Event.” Try to create a headline similar to one the journalist might use in writing the story.
Next, address the reporter or blogger by name and begin the body of the pitch. State why you’re writing and provide some information about yourself and the company or client you represent. Next, summarize the lead of the story. Writing in this manner resonates with some reporters, as it is the style they are accustomed to. You also can start the email with a catchy line that will hook the journalist, but be careful not to overdo this. Reporters and editors do not like flowery or gimmicky language because it sounds more like a hard sales pitch than a public relations pitch.
Continue with the pitch by providing important details about the story and talking about why it would be interesting to the media outlet’s audience. Doing this indicates that the story has news value, which is very important in pitching. Toward the end of the email pitch, state when you would like a response, indicate when you plan to follow up if necessary, and offer specific help. Be sure to thank the reporter or blogger for their time.
Don’t feel discouraged if the person does not respond immediately. Journalists are extremely busy, and sometimes they simply overlook emails. If necessary, send a reminder email by the follow-up date you mentioned in the first communication.
Also, as convenient as an email may be for you, there is no substitute for a phone conversation with a journalist. A good phone pitch elevates your chance of success, meaningfully builds the relationship, allows the journalist to ask questions right away and to probe for interesting angles, and also guarantees that you have received the journalist’s attention. Take the time to pick up the phone. It’s a wildly underappreciated communications device.
In both written and verbal pitches, grammar, and tone matter a lot; for written pitches, punctuation and spelling are important, too. Some journalists have admitted to not responding to a pitch that contains grammatical and spelling errors. Reread your message several times to check for errors. Here are more articles that discuss media relations, proper etiquette, and tips on gaining media exposure:
8.3. Responsive Media Relations and Terms of an Interview
There is more to media relations than understanding a journalist’s needs and making a good pitch.
Good PR practitioners are also skilled at receiving media calls and inquiries.
When a journalist already has a story and is looking to add to it, give balance, or extract points that could add reader interest (potentially at your client’s peril—no pressure), they will contact you, often by phone, but sometimes via email or social media.
When the phone rings, a skilled PR practitioner is ready to respond.
All media calls should be treated as urgent and potentially dangerous. Listening carefully, taking notes, and asking questions of the journalist are key to fielding media calls. As noted above, ask about their deadlines, find out what they’re after, whether it’s information, an interview, quotes, confirmation, or background.
A prepared PR practitioner has already self-scouted their own organization to identify who might be a necessary or valuable spokesperson. If somebody is particularly good at public speaking and/or speaking on camera, they may be a preferred option to act as a spokesperson. In some situations, the spokesperson must be the organization’s chief executive, as any other spokesperson would seem out of place and the chief executive would seem conspicuously absent.
Before putting a spokesperson in front of a journalist or camera, train them for necessary interview skills and rehearse the key messages needed for the given interview. If necessary, script the spokesperson, as in distributing information during a crisis.
Negotiate the terms of an interview. Gather information before providing information and establish whether the interview is “on the record,” “not for attribution,” “on background,” or “off the record.” Also agree on when the interview will happen, how long it will be, and who the spokesperson will be.
On the record: the words spoken or written may be printed as stated with attribution provided (that is, the name and position of the speaker/writer). This is sometimes called a “direct quote.”
Not for attribution: the words spoken or written may be printed as stated, but only with indirect attribution provided, such as a vague description of the rank and origin of the person giving the quote (as in, “a European diplomat” or “an auto-industry executive”).
On background: the information provided can be used, but not quoted word-for-word and not directly attributed (but a vague description of the source may be used, as above).
Off the record: the information cannot be published, but can be used to help the journalist find other sources.
There are several important points to note here:
- Unless otherwise agreed in advance, everything stated to a journalist is on the record
- None of these terms are legally binding; you take on the journalist’s honour that they will keep these agreements
- Confirm what these terms mean to the journalist when you use them; not everybody uses these terms the same way and, if you don’t have an agreement about what they mean, information may not be used as the PR practitioner had anticipated
This chapter was adapted from Write Like a PR Pro by Mary Sterenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
This chapter was also adapted from Writing for Strategic Communication Industries by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.