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Avoiding the Media Mishap (or how to treat a reporter like a human being)

February 16, 2016 the Bradford Group



As public relations folk, we’ve all had a few missteps with media relations somewhere in our careers (though many of us might not own up to them):

Call a reporter five minutes after sending a pitch email, even when it’s not time-sensitive? Check.
Reach out to an editor on her deadline day (because you haven’t bothered to learn that it’s her deadline day)? Check.
Send irrelevant information to a reporter, because his beat changed a month ago (and you didn’t notice)? Check.

Been there, done that. But, the truth is none of these things have to happen. And, if they’ve already happened once, they never have to happen again. The secret? Think like a reporter. And, more importantly – treat reporters like human beings.

How would you like it if you received hundreds of emails a day – many of which had nothing to do with your job, and then were hounded on the phone (sometimes before you’ve even had your coffee) by people who didn’t seem to know anything about your beat? You’d feel like a name on a list. You’d feel your time was wasted. And, you might get a little irritated.

However, what if you’d just gotten assigned to a new beat. You’d co-written an article or two with a veteran reporter, but knew your solo assignment was coming up and you needed resources. Suddenly, you get an email from someone who said, “I see you’ve been covering X, and I’d like to be of help. I’ve got (insert the name of your relevant and fabulous client) who can assist with the topics outlined below. Here’s more information…” You’d likely breathe a sigh of relief, and think “Maybe this person can help.” You might even email or call that person back, and it could be the start of a long relationship.

That’s the best outcome – for you, the reporter and your client. But in our business, reporters, editors and PR folks have a funny relationship. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s miserable. For everyone.

Here are a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned along the way to help grow the great, and mitigate the miserable:

Research, research, research

This is absolutely the most important thing a media specialist can do. When you call a reporter, you never want to hear something like, “Yeah, no thanks – I wrote about that last week.” Or, worse: “This has nothing to do with what I’m writing. Take me off your list.” Before you contact anyone, READ their recent coverage, LEARN everything you can about them. Then, THINK: If I were this reporter, would I be interested in what I’m trying to sell? The answer may not always be a definite “yes,” but it’s important to be smart and informed before you email and pick up the phone.

Be fast and friendly

Whether it’s an email pitch or you’re giving a reporter a call, be courteous and get to the point. Reporters are very busy – just as busy (or busier) than you. You have to remember you’re likely one of hundreds of PR professionals across the country who’ve decided to call them that day. Send pitch emails that can be read in under a minute. When calling, respect their time, and if they’re not interested, say “thank you” and be on your way. If they’re interested in more information, be ready to give it! Make sure you’re prepared, as you might only get one bite at the apple, so to speak. 

It’s not personal

Rejection. It’s a part of PR life. For every bite you get on a story and for every article that you place, you’ll likely have knocked on dozens of doors and had most of them slammed in your face. It’s okay. Move on. It’s not personal. The same reporter who rushed you off the phone this morning might give you a call next week when he needs something. Always start fresh, and keep your chin up.

It’s all in the timing

Yes, PR is like comedy (in so many ways).

But, it’s true: timing is everything. It should go without saying that your pitches need to be relevant to the news cycle and your follow up should be prompt and timely – but that’s not what I mean. Think about your day: Would you like to get a call at 8:30 or 9 AM (again, likely before you’ve had your coffee) about something that’s completely irrelevant, or could have waited until 11? Probably not. There are prime times to get in touch with busy reporters. In my experience, 10:30 AM to Noon and 1:30 to 3 PM in the reporter’s time zone, will often yield an email response or a phone pickup. Maybe they got caught in traffic, arrived at the office 15 minutes late, ran to a meeting and then finally sat down and exhaled at 11 AM. Maybe they had a lunch meeting offsite, returned to their desk at 1 PM, got caught up with email and are in a great mood when you call at 1:30. It’s not a fail-safe process, but I’ve had more success with those timeframes than not.

Whenever possible, make friends

Stay in touch with reporters and editors, and try to be of help at times when it’s not all about you or your client. Maybe you’ve followed them on Twitter and know they love sci-fi – shoot them a note about where you are in your X-files binge. Ask a reporter out for coffee just to hear about what she’s working on. A little bit of humanity goes a long way. Keep track of deadline days and avoid them. And, if you know a reporter is on vacation, don’t call his cell number. Seriously. Don’t do that. That’s just rude.

There are a lot of little things you can do to open up relationships with the media. Everyone has his or her own style and it will take time. Don’t give up, and try to have fun. Keep your sense of humor and share it. Reporters are people too. Treat them that way, and public relations can really work – for everyone.

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