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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The New Media

Relationships...

It's a simple word.  It's a simple concept.  Relationships matter in business, they matter in your personal life, they matter in your public relations and social media efforts as well.  An interesting turn of events reminded me of just HOW important relationships are when it comes to getting your message across to the audience you're targeting.


As part of my responsibilities handling public relations for my clients, I work hard to build relationship between my clients and local newsrooms.  My clients are small business and non-profits.  They rarely have met a reporter, almost never have been in a newsroom, let alone built a working relationship with a journalist.  Part of my job is to get them in front of reporters, producers and editors that can, ultimately, help them tell their stories.

Unfortunately, building relationship with the media is harder today than it has ever been before.  There are a number of reasons for this, but regardless of the hurdles facing small businesses and non-profits, it IS possible, you just have to be diligent, creative and smart.

Things Have Changed:

One of the biggest reasons why building media relationships is so much harder today is due to the economics of news.  20 years ago, when I started working in news, payrolls were tight.  Expense accounts were smaller, less time was being devoted to investigative and in-depth stories that took longer and cost more to produce. 

At the time, there was angst among journalists that the nature of news and reporting was changing, and not for the better.  It's not like news was a treasure trove of riches at any point in history.  But it seemed as if the money was disappearing at a historic rate.  Despite the warning signs, reporters still took time to chat with potential experts, spend time with individuals that might make good stories at some point, linger just a bit longer while covering stories.  They did this because they had a bit more time, but more importantly, it was part of their job.

Digging for stories was vital to their success.  And digging took time.  They understood that great stories don't always just walk in through the front door.  They had to go find them.  That meant building relationships of all kinds. 

Fast forward 20 years and the scorched landscape of news looks like the aftermath of some kind of financial armageddon.  Staffs have been slashed to truly the bare bones.  Time constraints are tighter than ever before.  Journalists simply don't have the time to go digging for stories and build relationsips, they're merely trying to survive.

Some of this is due to the competition from new information outlets and the explosion of social media.  But most of the problem is that journalists are doing jobs that, even just a few years ago, they weren't being asked to do. 

For instance, in Denver, a top feeder market in the U.S., is now asking many of their reporters to shoot their own stories.  Reporters and producers are being asked in some cases to edit their stories as well.  Nearly every discussion I've had with fellow journalists has centered around the increased workload and spike in stress.

One photographer lamented to me, "They even asked us to report on stories at one point..." he said laughing.  "We're photogs, not reporters, that's how bad it's getting."

What this means is that, whereas in the past small business owners, pillars of their communities, the ones who live, work and play in the local neighborhoods, simply don't have the access to journalists they used to in the past.  This lack of access ultimately makes it difficult for small businesses and non-profits to grow the kind of relationship that can help them in their PR efforts.

Tight Security:

There was a time when PR pro's were able to walk into newsrooms, shake some hands, drop off a case of beer or a couple of pizzas and leave behind some press releases or clever media kits.  Reporters would stop by, say hello, munch on some food and get a chance to meet the client as well as the PR person. 

Today, with budgets tight and competition fiercer than ever before, not to mention the rising violence rate against journalists, strangers in newsrooms raise flags and set off alarms.  This was brought home to me this past week as I took a client around to all the local newsrooms to promote a new campaign.  My group included me, two lovely ladies from HOOTERS and my client.  We came armed with envelopes containing press releases and other campaign/client info., as well as boxes of Buffalo wings.

In years past, this alone would have granted me access to just about every newsroom in the city.  Last week, I was able to walk into only two of them.  Fortunately, the two newsrooms I was able to enter happen to be the two most popular news outlets in town.  But the point still hit home. 

New rules and procedures kept me and my group from getting into newsrooms I ordinarily would have simply walked into.  When the two HOOTERS gals asked me why the security was so tight around these newsrooms, the answer sounded lame.  Sadly it's true.  The reason for the increased security is the result of competition and fear.

Competition with an increasingly growing number of information outlets, all battling for a smaller piece of the audience pie, is one main aspect.  Each newsroom likes to think it has secrets that, if found out by their competitors, could destroy them.  The working journalists know this isn't true, but the fear of spies remains high in most newsrooms, especially on the local level.

Of course, the rising violence against journalists is legitimate fear, and one that I understand, having lived through a newsroom shooting while working at a local TV station ten years ago.  Limiting access to complete strangers makes sense.  Limiting access to experienced and qualified professionals, doesn't.

Get Lucky:

Fortunately, I got lucky and was able to call in a favor at one station.  This individual managed to wrangle a representative to come down and spend some time with me and my group.  We had a wonderful conversation, arranged a future meeting and left the station feeling as if we'd accomplished something.  In one newsroom, they didn't allow us to leave our food.  At a third station, we lucked out and I managed to run into an old colleague who just happened to be one of the individuals I'll be pitching the campaign to.  She was busy, so I didn't take much of her time.  It was enough that I ran into her, said hi, left her the release and the wings and let her do her job. 

The point is, if a seasoned PR pro with longstanding newsroom relationships who also happens to be a former journalist has problems getting into newsrooms, what chance does a small business person or non-profit director have with no connections at all?  The answer, not much.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to try to develop those relationships.  Here are a few tips on gaining access to newsrooms even in this era of closed doors, tight security and overworked journalists who just don't have the time they once did to meet with the public and build relationships.
1.  Target specific journalists to begin a dialogue with:  This could be a reporter or a producer or an editor.  It doesn't matter.  What you want and what you need is someone who will carry your flag (story) into the news meetings and fight for you.  Obviously they won't be able to do this all the time, but if you give them a good story, they'll fight for it to receive coverage. 

2.  Start your dialogue with an email, a press release, a hello, almost anything will do:  In many cases, you'll start with a press release.  But you can also simply send a small electronic media packet with a short note that introduces your organization to them.  Let them know who you are, what you do and that you'd like to hopefully work with them in the future on a quality story.

3.  Be respectful:  If they know that you understand their business, their time constraints and their deadlines, they will be much more likely to respond to you.  Don't pressure them too much, particularly in the beginning.  You don't have to call them, or send a ton of emails.  Start with your introductory email and follow up when you think you have a good story to pitch.  The better the story, the more they'll take notice of you.  Even if they don't pick your story up, they'll at least know that you understand how to pitch and what to pitch.  Remember, news decisions are made by committee in many instances.  They may have fought for your story but it was turned down.  Keep your lines of communication open.  Keep pitching them good stories and eventually, you'll hit one.

4.  Invite them over for drinks:  Okay, this isn't as creepy as it sounds.  At some point, like many businesses, you'll want to consider a special "media night" where you offer specials and deals specifically for members of the media.  You can throw a party and invite members of the media to take a look at your new location, or new product or sample your food and drinks.  You DON'T want to say something like, "I would love to meet you some time, let me buy you dinner sometime."  That sounds a bit stalker-ish, and your emails will most likely end up directly in the junk pile.  Wait a bit, and then invite them to a night when all the media is invited to attend.  And remember this; if and when you Do manage to entice members of the media to a party or special event, don't hound them with pitches or just talk shop.  Just talk with them like ordinary people, because that's what they are.  Share a drink, tell some stories, get to know them and let them get to know you.  They'll appreciate not having to talk work.  Let them relax and enjoy themselves.  Oh, and if you REALLY want to get the media to your event, offer an open bar.  Seriously, an open bar works.

5.  Take advantage of the coverage:  If after all your pitching you finally get a story covered, you'll at least end up with a photographer on your doorstep to take photos or shoot video.  The reporter may or may not be in attendance.  However, if you're lucky, the reporter will show up as well, or at the very least, spend time interviewing you on the phone.  If it's a phone interview, don't wander in the conversation.  Answer the questions, thank them for their time, and at the end, simply say something like, "I really look forward to meeting you sometime, thank you for the story."  If they show up in person, you have a much better chance to chat while the photographer sets up.  Be casual, just talk to them, compliment them on a recent story they covered.  Flattery, like bribery, works.  You don't have to roll out the red carpet for them.  Just be nice and be respectful.  Don't fawn all over them, and treat them like you would want to be treated.  They have a job, let them do it.  But if you see an opening to chat with them about life in general, take it.
Because newsrooms are trying to do more with less, you have to know that stories that would have been covered just a few years ago, simply aren't getting covered today.  They don't have the resources they once had.  Because of this, even really good story pitches aren't making it into rundowns.  Don't get discouraged.  It takes time to build these relationships, but if you persevere, you WILL be able to make a connection.  You probably will never be best friends with these folks, and that's okay, you don't need to be.  You DO need to have a professional relationship with them.  One where they know who you are, trust you enough to listen to your pitches and respects you enough to fight for your story if they like it. 

It's not always easy, and it won't happen overnight.  But if you work at it, you CAN make a connection.  And once you do, don't abuse that relationship.  Ultimately, you need these individuals and these newsrooms to help you get your message out to the public at large.  Now, go out and buy a case of beer, a box of wings and a cute greeting card with an insert that says, "My name is _____, will you be my friend?"

Okay, forget the card, but the beer and wings are still a good idea.  Journalists may be overworked, underpaid and stressed to the hilt, but they'll always appreciate a quality tribute.  And that, my friends, could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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