Thursday, October 14, 2010

Give 'Em A Break...

It's that time of year again.  The leaves are falling, the weather takes on a slight chill, footballs are flying and every pitch in baseball takes on major importance.  In Colorado, snow-making machines are working overtime in the rush to get skiers on the slopes as soon as possible.  Yep, it's election time again and that means only one thing...stressed-out journalists.

I spent fifteen years working as a journalist and I can tell you, this is never a fun time of year.  Reporters, producers and editors have been spending months, literally, preparing for one night in early November.  By preparing, I'm talking about hours upon hours of reading bills and proposals and municipal codes, not to mention candidate resumes, speeches, background checks and press releases from a multitude of political groups across the spectrum.

I haven't even touched on the hours spent designing graphics, setting up logistics for coverage, such as who will be at the different headquarters, arranging live shoots, creating a schedule, building rundowns and...well, you get the idea.  A LOT of work goes into election night coverage...a lot.

Never mind the pressure to get all the facts right on election night as the results being flowing in, and pressure from management to get the big scoop, nail down the big interviews and do it all in such a way that doesn't go overbudget, over-time and in an entertaining fashion that will attract the most viewers.

As you can guess, all that work and no play makes journalists cranky.  The last thing they need is someone constantly bugging them with a story that, while interesting, simply has no place in their already crowded rundowns.

Practice Patience:

We've discussed timing in this space before, and this is one of those times where the more you are aware of what is going on around you, the better off you will be when pitching your story.  Perhaps the most important thing I've pitched with clients during election season is to practice patience when dealing with newsrooms and reign in their coverage expectations.

The fact is, if your story doesn't have some kind of political slant, it's unlikely you're going to get much, if any, coverage on your local newscast or in your daily papers.  This doesn't mean you should take a month off and simply throw up your hands in frustration during October and early November.  There ARE some things you can do to increase your chances of garnering earned news coverage, but remember, you have to plan it right, time it right, write it right, and have a little luck as well.
1.  Be Relevant - If you're pitching a story, try and find an angle that is political in nature, especially if there is a bill or proposal or particularly heated race.  Your best bet is to find a story involving your organization that relates in some way to the big political races.  This will offer journalists a different angle to a story they're probably already bored covering.

2.  Pitch Early - As election day grows closer, rundowns begin to fill up with fewer and fewer feature stories due to election coverage.  If you have a story you'd like to wedge in during October, make your pitch in late September or early October.  If you wait until the last week of October, you're chances decrease significantly.

3.  Be Personal - This is the time of year when personal relationship can be a real help.  It won't guarantee that you'll get coverage, but at least you'll have someone carrying the flag for your story during the daily newsmeetings.  Even in newsrooms where you don't really have strong personal relationships, you can improve your chances by personally addressing your release to individuals reporters, producers and editors.  One final note: instead of emailing your release, personally hand-deliver your release to each newsroom if possible.  Again, this won't guarantee coverage, but trust me, these journalists are being indundated, overwhelmed in some cases, by emails pitching stories, both political and non-political.  If they have something solid, in their hands, that they can peruse on their desk, it's harder to simply overlook.  Your release may sit on their desk for a bit, but it will be there, reminding them of a story that might be news-worthy later on.  
Other Tips:

Another thing to keep in mind is scheduling.  One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is scheduling events in the middle of October and early November.  Every other year, this is generally fine.  However during election years, it means you'll be fighting an uphill battle for coverage. 

This leads me to time-sensitive stories.  Your best bet when pitching a story so close to an election is to try and make it as least time-sensitive as possible.  If you pitch a story that absolutely has to be covered within a small window of time, you are severely limiting your chances.  If a newsroom can't find time or resources to cover your story in that time-span, your story will simply be tossed away with no chance to get coverage after the fact.  However, if your story has some relevance before the elections, and will still be relevant or interesting AFTER the elections, you set yourself up for being part of an election follow-up story, or be part of the first wave of post-election stories.

But let's assume you either HAVE to pitch a story, or simply feel like you have a great story and don't want to wait a few weeks.  In this case, follow the above tips to get your release into the hands of key newsroom players.  Then, be tactful and smart when it comes to the follow-up.  What you do AFTER you get the release to the newsroom will be the difference between getting your story on the air or in print and being completely ignored.
1.  Let's assume you walked your release into the newsroom.  Your next step is to wait a day or two and follow with an email.  Make it short and to the point.  Remind them who you are, what your story is and make your request for coverage.  Let them know that you are flexible and available.

2.  If you still haven't heard back from them, wait another day or two and give them a phone call.  Chances are, you won't reach the individual and will instead get their voice mail.  If you DO get their voicemail, again, keep it short, and follow the same instructions as above.  If you happen to get a live person, do the same thing as above with a couple of important changes:  A) If they politely decline covering your story, don't argue with them. You can point out how your story applies to the current political coverage (if it's relevant) and if they still aren't interested, thank them for their time, remind them that your story will still be relevant AFTER elections and that you'd love to talk about the story after the election dust has settled.

3.  Follow up with an email a few days later.  After you've left a message on their voicemail or chatted with them directly, send an email, thanking them for taking time to consider your story.  Again, keep it short and remind them that your story will still be relevant and interesting after the elections.  Thank them for the work they are doing as part of their election coverage and let them know that you understand the pressures they are under.  Keep it professional and flattering.  They will like the fact that you aren't pestering them too much and respect the fact that you understand the situation.  You STILL may not get any coverage, even after the elections are done, but they will remember you the next time you pitch and this, my friends, is how you begin to build relationships with journalists.
Patience, Grasshopper:

In the end, while you don't have to lower your expectations, you may have to adjust them, at least temporarily, while newsrooms focus on the elections.  It's perfectly okay to pitch your stories, it's NOT okay to make demands on journalists, despite how good your story may be.  Journalists are like elephants...they remember everything.  If you pester and cajole and argue, you will become persona-non-grata.  Yes, we know that journalists are supposed to be subjective, but they are human, and if you make their lives miserable when they're already overworked, they will make you pay for it later.

Find Opportunity:

This time of year is also a great way to go the other direction and try to make their lives easier.  If you are a massage therapist, or dry-cleaning service, restaurant, bar, whatever you do, if you can provide a service to your local newsroom, by all means, offer it.  Some journalists will take you up on a round of free drinks for local journalists, some won't. 

If you don't want to deal with that hassle, simply order pizzas and have them delivered to the newsroom in your name.  You can do the same thing with breakfast burritos, beer, donuts, anything that will make their lives a little easier while they are slaving away preparing for and covering the elections.

Like always, there's no guarantee this will garner you coverage, but at the very least, they will remember you.  Even though you might not get much, if any, response to your pitch this time of year, you can still use the elections as an opportunity to build relationships with local journalists.  And that is the kind of campaigning that can really pay off for you in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment