Monday, November 9, 2009

Those Pesky Relationship...

Not long ago I read an interesting article about how to score free drinks at a bar. It talked about the usual methods, mostly involving short skirts flirty smiles. Of course, depending on who you are, that doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the most effective method mentioned in the article is also one of the most powerful tools in your public relations arsenal and it’s called, “The Relationship.”

The most successful public relations professionals always had inside access to the newsrooms they dealt with most, and with reporters, producers and editors they pitched to most often. In the past decade, though, the media has changed drastically with newsrooms trying to do more with less. This means fewer reporters and photographers, and overworked and stressed-out editors and producers. The change has also meant a fragmentation of the potential media coverage available to small businesses and non-profits. On a positive note, this has meant more niche media allowing for more precise targeting and pitching of stories. But it has also made it somewhat harder to try and develop the relationships that have proven to be so effective over the years. When once there was a one-stop-shopping feel, where you knew your best relationships could be developed in just a handful of newsrooms, now you have to work harder to find the right outlets and journalists to begin your dialogue with.

For those of you already under tremendous time constraints, this takes time that is normally devoted to focusing on your business or non-profit. However, there are ways to make the best use of your time while still developing the right relationship that could result in valuable media coverage for your organization. And make no mistake about it, while there are no guarantees that these relationships will result in immediate and extensive media coverage, the relationships you build with media outlets and journalists will help you immensely in the long run.

Though the media has changed, there are still two basic ways to approach the task of developing your media relationships.

1. Go to them.
2. Make them come to you.

It’s pretty simple in theory. The hard part is taking the time to do your research, decide on a plan of action and then move forward with that plan.

Do Your Research

Before you can even begin a relationship with the media, you first have to know who exactly you want to get to know. If you own a dress shop, it probably won’t do you much good to spend your time getting to know the afternoon sports anchor. On the other hand, if your local weatherperson is constantly doing charity work involving fashion shows or is well known for her love of dresses and style, that person would be worth your time to get to know.

Here are a few tips you can use when doing your research to help you make the best use of your time.

1. Find the right outlet. While the major local news outlets are certainly a great place to start, spend some time and find out if there are specific blogs, local or national magazines that specialize in what you do, internet radio shows, e-zines, locally produced television programs, anything that would seem to be a good fit for your organization.
2. Once you have targeted the specific outlets, do your research on the staff. Don’t just focus on the writers, or reporters, but find out what you can about the editors and producers. They are the everyday decision makers in most newsrooms, and the more you know about them, the more effective you will be when contacting them.
3. Whittle your list down to a manageable size of individuals to focus on. Make it a mix of behind the scenes personnel and more high profile individuals.

Devise a Plan

A – Go to them…
Here’s where we get back to the two basic methods of getting to know the media. First, you can go to them directly. Search them out (but don’t stalk them, please) and strike up a conversation with them. This sounds more difficult than it really is.

There is an old saying in newsrooms that nothing improves a pitch better than free food. Trust me, it’s true. Your press release may only get, on average, about three to five seconds of perusal before it’s likely discarded or shoved into a file, but pair it with food, and suddenly your release becomes much more interesting.

Recently I took a client around to all of the local newsrooms in Denver. Before each visit, a call was made and we requested a visit with executive producers, news directors and editors in an effort to gain entry into each newsroom. It wasn’t successful in every case, in a couple of instances, we met with the news director or editor in the lobby of the building. However in every other instance, we were able to walk into the newsroom, sit down with decision-making individuals and start a dialogue. I had told my client to buy donuts, enough to leave at least two dozen in seven different newsrooms. That’s a lot of donuts. My client decided to give it a personal touch and bake several dozen cookies, in the shape of cats (the release was announcing the opening of a community spay and neuter cat clinic downtown). The cookies were nicely packaged in a clinic bag, along with the release and some other cat novelty items. The presentation was nice, the novelty items were fun, but the cookies were the biggest hit.

My client had an opportunity to meet with journalists who she will be pitching stories to over the next several months and years. She was even able to schedule an interview with one television station before the day was through. I’m not saying the cookies tipped the scales, but they certainly didn’t hurt.

It may sound silly, taking food into a newsroom just to say hello to journalists you want to get to know, but it works. For a morning crew, bring donuts, for an afternoon or weekend crew, deliver lunch. For an evening crew, nice snacks or even dinner if your budget can afford it. Believe me, pizza goes a long way.

If you’re going to take this approach it’s very important to time your appearance at the right time. There are always certain times of the day in every newsroom that are busier than others. You want to be there when reporters, producers and editors actually have time to spend a few minutes with you. You will likely only have ten minutes, tops, but that is more than enough to accomplish your goal, which is just to let them know who you are, put a face with your name and drop off your food.

A simple phone call to the front desk will usually tell you everything you need to know about the best time to drop in to deliver your food.

B. Bring them to you…

Once you have determined who you want to begin a relationship with, throw a party. Journalists, in case you didn’t know, love free stuff. Free food and free drinks in particular. Plan a party and invite local journalists to attend. A few things to remember when going this route.

First, don’t hold the party at your location. Plan the party someplace centrally located. Hold it in a well known bar, restaurant or hotel that is easy to find and near the majority of your local news outlets. Most cities have a Press Club. If you can afford to rent a room at the club, do it. You’ll get many more journalists to show up there then you would just about anywhere else.

Second, don’t worry so much about the why. In other words, call it an anniversary, plan to announce something on behalf of your organization, anything, but make sure that the invite clearly states open bar and free food. This alone will draw a crowd of eager journalists to your gathering.

Third, plan it during a time you can get the most bodies to attend. Fridays and Saturdays are rarely effective. Wednesday or Thursday evenings are good days. You’ll also find that between 6pm and 8pm are the best times to host your event.

Don’t Pitch!

The most important thing to remember as you begin your media relationship quest is that these first excursions into newsrooms are not necessarily meant to pitch a story. It’s certainly acceptable to talk about your business or non-profit, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t leave with a scheduled interview. This is really your first opportunity to get to know your journalists, and to let them know you.

This isn’t a hard sell. Ask questions about what kind of stories they want to cover, when the best time to contact them and what kind of time and staffing constraints they are under. This is a conversation and a great opportunity to learn more about the media outlets you will be working with most.

Follow Up!

After your first meetings, follow up with an email, phone call or card to thank them for their time and to remind them again who you are and that you look forward to meeting them again in the near future. It’s a little thing, but remember, journalists are people too. They enjoy working with people they know and people they like. There are many opportunities to meet journalists outside of newsrooms as well. Charity events, awards banquets and many other social outings. If and when you run into journalists you have met at these outings, feel free to offer to buy them a drink, and strike up a conversation. Don’t talk about business or work. Keep it casual and conversational. Get to know them personally if you can. Journalists are always on the clock, so remember that nothing is ever really “off the record.” At the same time, when journalists DO get a chance to kick back and relax, they don’t want to be pestered with a pitch or shop talk.

These are just some ways to begin a relationship with the media. Approach it as if you would nearly every other business relationship. You have a product to sell, and journalists are always looking for good stories. Once they get to know you, and more importantly, trust you, the job of pitching yourself will become much, much easier.

And if all else fails, there’s always the short skirts and flirty smiles.

Any thoughts, questions, ideas or feedback? Please feel free to leave me a note and start a conversation. As always, this blog is always an open dialogue, so feel free to jump in.

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