Five Good Ideas ®

Media Relations

Published on 22/11/2005

Media relations exploded into my life ten years ago, when I was winding up a long career at the CBC. Before that, as a hard political and international news correspondent, I had very little contact with public relations (PR) people. We did speak with people in organizations who handled our requests for interviews and research, but frankly, it was usually the reporter making the call out, not the other way around.

When I joined Media Profile in 2000, I did not fully understand the full range of responsibilities PR people took on. However I did know that by then they were everywhere, clogging up the fax machines with press releases, and at that time, just beginning to invade my email with their clutter.

At the same time, the work load of most reporters was increasing, in part because of emails. A reporter on average receives 70 press releases a day, press kits, notices of news conferences, etc. They file for their online editions as well as their papers or newscasts.

I realized that the PR consultants who were guaranteed success, were those who understood the environment and context in which a reporter was working in. For example, if the reporter I said great story, but the Illinois Court has just charged Conrad Black – there wasno point in wasting time that day with a pitch. But they could come back with a fresh angle at a later date.

Yesterday was a perfect example. I had a great little story about the steelworkers at Algoma Steel trying to prevent a giant hedge fund from calling a special shareholders meeting to vote on distributing the company’s very hard earned profits, instead of saving them for pension liabilities. However, at the same time I was fighting for media coverage against the General Motors closures. In the end I did succeed in getting the message out by releasing the story a bit earlier than anticipated to a select number of reporters. It was eventually covered by Canadian Press. I also was able to get the story out by using the following good ideas.

Media Relations is a very personal business

Media relations is driven by two complementary principles – client service and media relationships. The media are clients. We can not help them cover stories if we do not help them. Take an interest in what the reporter is working on, read their stories or watch the series and complement them sincerely. Everyone likes to be complemented! It is critical to have a personal and professional relationship with reporters in order to get your calls answered and your emails read.

An up-to-date database with contact information of reporters is essential. If you send material to someone who is no longer in the position, your material will be dumped and ignored. Reporters do move, but call every few months to check if an important contact is still in that same place. Mark on your database when the date you spoke or emailed the person.

Ensure your messages are relevant to the current news agenda

So much of media relations is about “hooks”. We would all like to be proactive by placing stories in the media at the time we want. But that rarely happens. A more common tale is we are combing the newspapers and listening to radio and television, the light goes on and you say, “I can help expand or build on what the reporter is talking about.” Do not simply add another quote on the same topic. For example with General Motors job losses perhaps you could develop an angle about retraining. Find a reporter that you know well and pitch the angle. Remember to match your agenda with the current news item.

Take advantage of seasonal holidays for good story ideas. Christmas is a great time to pitch stories about good deeds at home and abroad. For example, we received huge coverage a couple of years ago when the hotel and restaurant students at George Brown College made Christmas cakes for Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Small gesture – big play.

Strategize about times of the year when you can leverage what you are doing. Reporters are always looking for the next great human interest story. But when you pitch, underplay the story. Do not load on too many details.

Learn how to pitch a story

It all starts with the headline – or even more important is the subject line of the email. We just held a little event last night for the Canadian Securities Institute. On the surface it was not newsworthy – an event to get attention for the CSI Research Foundation and $200,000 in academic grants that had just been awarded. I struggled over this and then realized the obvious subject line: “Fred Ketchen invites you.” Fred is the chairman of the Research Foundation. I know very well that all business reporters know and love Fred. As a result of this subject line an astounding number of reporters showed up “for Fred”. Fred was away, he did not have a clue we had invited people that way but he was very happy with the turnout, and so was our client. The subject line sold the event.

You have to learn to write catchy, provocative, punchy, colloquial headlines that are to the point. The headline and the first paragraph are what sells the piece.

If you are approaching the media with a story idea keep in mind the following:

  • Be absolutely clear about the story and the supporting facts
  • Be sure who you are calling – is it the right journalist?
  • Explain why your pitch is being made – why should others care?
  • What is the news?
  • Do not overstay your welcome. Listen to the tone and/or watch the reporter’s body language. Do not provide too many details
  • Paste information into an email. Do not send attachments.

Prepare for every encounter

Before you talk to a reporter keep your main point in mind. Can you summarize your message in three lines? Rehearse your comments with colleagues. You only get one chance to make the pitch. Reporters truly appreciate the headline that is short and succinct. Remember media is a business. You have a lot of competition for readers’ time as well as their hearts and minds. Approach a pitch to reporters with three bullet points, backed up with some examples to illustrate your point. Be aware when the reporter is losing interest. If so, come back at a later date with a new angle.

Be prepared to pass on stories to reporters without immediate payback

To build a good relationship with reporters, take every opportunity to help them do their job, even if it has nothing to do with your own issue. Act as a resource by suggesting contacts who might help with other stories or directing reporters to information they might not have. And do not forget to get out there and network. Go to public events that reporters will be in attendance. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression event are a good example. Introduce yourself to reporters, chat with them and ensure you take their business cards. Do not forget to keep track of their work.

Good Resources

  1. Enroll in a communications/media relations course on writing for press releases, advisories and speeches
  2. Google to research previous work of reporter – www.google.ca
  3. Spend time reading publications, checking their websites, and even calling the various desks to see who covers what issues.
  4. Telephone reporters and talk to them about issues, build a rolodex of contacts saying who they are, what they do, their deadlines, how they like to receive their material

Susan Reisler

Vice President, Media Profile

Susan is one of the best-known public relations practitioners in Canada, having “crossed the aisle” to PR following a 25-year career as a foreign correspondent, journalist, host and producer in television and radio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Susan provides strategic advice and planning to professional, corporate, financial and entertainment clients. She is involved at the most senior levels in everything from crisis communications support to drafting news releases and media relations. Susan also writes speeches for senior executives and op-eds for newspapers and is a key member of the Media Profile media training team. Susan’s intellectual curiosity drives her extra-curricular activities. From her participation in US-Canada relations through to the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center where she is a member of the Advisory Board, to her involvement in causes ranging from the banning of land mines to defending human rights and freedom of speech as a member of Human Rights Watch Canada and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Susan is constantly questioning how to make things better.