Maytree blog

How to reach out to the media to get your stories told

Published on 11/08/2016

Some days, getting media coverage for the work we do at non-profits feels like a downright Herculean task. Other days it feels more like wishful thinking. What we do is important. So why is it so hard to get the media to pay attention? One reason is that the media environment is rapidly changing.

News rooms are getting smaller. Fewer journalists are expected to cover the same number of stories. They are overworked and overextended. Every day, they receive many news releases and are pitched dozens of times. Most emails are deleted without a second glance.

It would be easy to just give up – but we shouldn’t. The mainstream media play a profound role in shaping narratives about our society. It is worth your time to build a strong media relations program. However, as with all communications efforts, you have to do it in a strategic way.

For some good advice on how to reach out to the media to get your stories told, let’s hear what some media experts have to say. Maytree’s signature lunch-and-learn program, Five Good Ideas, has experts discuss powerful yet practical ideas on key issues facing non-profit organizations – including how to engage media in your work.

Carol Goar’s presentation on how to talk to the media is a good place to start. Carol, a recently retired Toronto Star columnist, acknowledges that the non-profit sector doesn’t always get the attention it deserves even though it has good stories to share. But, she cautions, don’t just blame the media. Unfortunately, non-profits make unnecessary mistakes that get in the way of getting their stories told.

Her first idea can’t be repeated often enough: Ask yourself why your message is important to the public – in particular the public that reads, watches or listens to the media you’re pitching to.

Before you make a phone call or send an e-mail to a member of the media, ask yourself: Why does my message matter to the public? That’s the first question an assignment editor is going to ask. If you can’t tell him or her why it’s newsworthy, you’ve lost the first battle.

In her session on media relations, Susan Reisler, one of Canada’s best-known public relations practitioners, talks about how to prepare your answer to that question:

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.

While you are pitching, pay attention to the reporter’s tone of voice and/or body language. Are they interested in what you’re saying? Don’t provide too many details, and don’t overstay your welcome.

Susan also reminds us that your preparation starts long before you have a story idea. It starts with being a consumer of media. You need to know who is covering your issues and what kind of stories they are writing about. You can reach out to journalists – anytime, not just when you want something from them – and compliment them on their stories when they do a particularly good job. That way they know who you are when you do have something to pitch and they are more likely to open your email and respond.

Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn lays out five things to do when reaching out to the media:

  1. Respect a journalist’s beat and interest (and that of his or her readers).
  2. Tailor your pitch to the journalist (best way: start your email with the journalist’s first name).
  3. Flattery helps: read what the reporter is writing about and tell him or her that you read it.
  4. Make your pitch concise, human and not artificial.
  5. Include a photo, if you have one, in the body of the email (not as an attachment).

(Bob has five equally important don’ts for pitching – watch the session if you want to hear what you should avoid doing.)

Rob Steiner, Director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto, argues that you need to think beyond the major media outlets in your market. Instead, start focusing on smaller media that cover your special area of interest. They might have smaller audiences, but those audiences might just be the right ones for you.

Then, Rob takes it a step further and argues that you need to become your own newsroom. In his presentation, he explains how you can create a process within your organization to identify the important (and often untold) stories in your field. Start with your staff – and not just those working in communications. All staff can be trained to identify untold stories that could be of interest to media. In addition, they may even be interested in learning how to write, speak on a podcast, or even shoot a video. If your organization has clients, you could also train them to be reporters. Rob suggests identifying clients with an interest and offering them the same training you are offering to your staff.

For many of us, summer means planning for the second half of the year – an ideal time to refresh your communication strategies. Spending a morning or an afternoon with our Five Good Ideas media relations experts is an easy way to get started, and get inspired to kick-start your work for the fall.

Markus Stadelmann-Elder is Director of Communications at Maytree.


Learning from four experts about engaging the media in the non-profit work.