Spiked Articles

Perfect Pitching

Scoring With the National News Media

By Ray Jones

Originally Posted

The best way to score with the national news media is to invest some serious time and effort in foreplay.
I have been PR director for three colleges and universities. Some PR folks must deal with the fallout of CEOs who are infatuated with comely young interns. However, the CEOs I worked for were all infatuated with the idea of getting themselves "exposed." I suggested they each to go out and buy a trench coat. However, it turned out this was not what they had in mind. These folks wanted exposure in the New York and Washington news media. They felt it was the easiest shortcut to national prestige, and they all looked to me to help them score. Head Pimp or Chief Strategist? I wasn't sure whether this made me the head pimp or chief strategist, but I was basically happy for the challenge. I do in fact believe that national media coverage is an effective way to re-position any business or organization for greater success. Moreover, when I first got involved in this racket the whole process seemed like a no-brainer. I know that few things can match the impact of a well-placed news story. I know that news coverage has a "credibility factor" that paid advertising cannot hope to duplicate. And the best deal of all is that news coverage doesn't cost anything. My plan at each school was to arrange a simple ménage à trios -- er, I mean three-part plan: 1) build a solid base of local media support; 2) ease into regional exposure as opportunities arose; and 3) leverage my clips, references and good will whenever something "big" happened to give me a legitimate shot at national exposure. It sounded good on paper, but the biggest barriers to success did not in fact come from the news media. My worst headaches were caused by the CEOs I was trying to serve; because, as I soon realized, they simply didn't understand the rules of the game. Afflicted with CEO Syndrome In fact, to a person they were beset with an affliction I came to call "the CEO syndrome." It's even worse than menopause. CEO syndrome is an egocentric belief that no self-respecting news organization could resist doing a story about the chief executive -- if the hapless PR flaks could just find a way to "get the word out" about how wonderful, wise, witty, charismatic, compassionate, and charming that CEO really is. Reporters laugh themselves silly at the thought. But these kinds of off-the-wall expectations are a significant hazard for PR folks in corporate settings. If this syndrome afflicts your organization, your PR program may need CPR. Breathe twice, pump the chest five times, and find a creative way to bring your top executives' expectations in line with reality. (Incidentally, another symptom of CEO syndrome is a refusal to listen to staff advice. So, instead of orchestrating an in-house educational program, you may just want to print this "Top Ten" list and tell your boss it came from a consultant.) I Wish My CEOs Had Known Here are the things I wish my former CEOs had known:

  1. Having a chip on one's shoulder does nothing to enhance media relations. Simply put, the media don't "owe it" to any person or institution to provide positive coverage. Their job is to cover news, and, when all is said and done, the media's definition of news is the only one that counts.

  2. It takes time and focus to expand the effective radius of a media outreach effort. A media coordinator must be thoroughly familiar with his or her targeted media, their personnel and their perceived audiences. That familiarity comes from doing one's homework and investing time in personal visits and active listening.

  3. Staff energy should not be frittered away on low-priority tasks. Many organizations roll out their national media relations program with a bang. Then they bog the staff down writing junk stories for the company newsletter and scripting Rotary Club speeches for the president. This is like using a thoroughbred race horse to give pony rides at a church picnic.

  4. The key to successful placement is conscientiously monitoring the news on a daily basis, and artfully filling journalistic vacuums using professional experts readily at hand. Systematic internal networking is vital. Media coordinators should make it their business to know everyone, from the most senior executive to the most junior custodian. Smart bosses give them the time to get to know their organization inside out.

  5. A basic rule of salesmanship is that, all things being equal, friends buy from friends. The world of media relations has an exact parallel: All things being equal, reporters buy story ideas from friends. The media's definition of a "friend," incidentally, is a PR person who has an objective mind, reliable news judgment, and a track record of cooperation.

  6. If you work for a nonprofit organization, remind your CEO that the bonding process in media relations works no differently than it does in fundraising. No self-respecting fundraiser would approach a well-heeled donor for a major gift without first studying the donor's background, identifying his or her special interests, and methodically cultivating a personal relationship. Story placement efforts succeed or fail based on a similar process.

  7. One of the best ways to attract broadcast coverage is to score a lot of print placements. The journalistic credentials of many people who work in broadcast are suspect, and – in their defense – they work in a frenetic environment. Not surprisingly, they uncover most of their story ideas the easy way, by reading the newspaper. A high profile in the print media usually translates to increased attention from broadcast media.

  8. Non-East Coast organizations are at a disadvantage in getting on the media radar screen. For example, Ivy League institutions receive substantial coverage in The New York Times because a large percentage of Times staffers are alumni of those institutions. Likewise, Times business reporters write about companies they used to work for or that their friends work for. It's not easy to get these reporters out of their comfort zones. It takes patient cultivation, willingness to overlook an occasional flash of arrogance, and (most important) an extraordinarily good story idea.

  9. Few things can screw up an outreach effort more than the "measurement tests" conjured up by corporate bean counters. The truth is that most accountants wouldn't know how to measure the impact of a media placement effort if The New York Times opened a news bureau in the corner of their office. In recent years, PR practitioners have attempted to placate their overseers by coming up with bogus measures like "clipping counts" or "ad value equivalency ratings." These schemes are nonsensical for more reasons than I can count. Suffice it to say that a timely, well-written feature story is invariably beneficial to the person or organization that gets spotlighted. I cannot "prove" that, however, so I am destined not to be taken seriously by bean counters.

  10. CEOs need to understand that a story with a "negative" element is not always bad. For example, if an accident or scandal is addressed openly and responsibly, the affected organization can actually emerge with its image enhanced. Likewise, an organization can mishandle a "good thing" and come out tarnished. (Remember when the University of Colorado won an important, nationally televised football game and ended up with a huge PR black eye because its coaches stood by while officials awarded the team a fifth down?)

Exposing Yourself While national media exposure is a worthwhile goal, the road to national exposure has no shortcuts. The key ingredients to success are:

  • being patient

  • pursuing a systematic outreach strategy that builds, outwardly, based on small successes

  • eschewing propaganda and ego-driven faux news

  • delegating news judgments to bona fide PR pros who have news judgment

  • realizing that the best guarantee of placement success is a fresh, timely, and genuinely interesting news story

If the people you are trying to serve do not understand these rules, it's a pretty sure bet that your business or organization will remain secure in its status as the "best kept secret west of the (you fill in the blank) River."

Join The Discussion

We will never post your email address publicly; it's used solely as part of our verification process to keep the spammers under control. After submitting your comment or question, you'll receive an email confirmation message with a link back to CornerBarPR.com® that you'll need to click before your post appears for others to see. By submitting this post you agree to the CornerBarPR.com Terms Of Service.