Five Ways PR Pros Can Improve Their Media Relations

by Matt Reed

Before joining Curley & Pynn Public Relations Management, I worked in local newsrooms for 25 years – as a reporter, city editor, columnist, TV program host, editorial page editor and Twitter-verified “news personality.” I survived years of the perpetual downsizing that keeps my old friends up at night. I felt the panic from being interrupted on deadline by PR pitches for books or other topics I would never, ever cover.

But I remember, too, the valuable help I received from a few PR pros. They understood that the news industry’s plunge into video, mobile apps and social media had changed our needs. They asked what kept me up at night and brought me solutions: subject-matter experts, research reports, photos and graphics, and interesting guests for my TV show.

In that spirit, I’ll share five ways that PR professionals can serve their clients and organizations better by understanding today’s local news markets and the evolving needs of journalists.

  1. Publish it yourself first, then pitch.

Return on investment is worsening for news pitches in local news markets for the simple fact that there are far fewer journalists on duty to open our emails or answer our calls. Newspapers across Florida have all but eliminated photographers, section editors and writers who used to cover sports, business, local government, the courts, the arts, travel and social services. New, competing digital news outlets do not have these positions on staff, either.

We owe it to our clients and employers to help them reach as many target “publics” as possible with their message. So, start with the sure things: the organization’s Facebook page, websites, even employee email.

Do that, and a funny thing happens, I have found. Posts that generate lots of comments, likes and shares often get the attention of reporters who now monitor social media for story ideas and view the reader engagement itself as news.

  1. Help reporters show your story.

TV reporters and producers have always scrutinized PR pitches for readily available interview sources or potential for on-the-scene video.

Who else depends on visuals now? All the other journalists.

The top priorities now for writers and editors at what we used to call “newspapers” are publishing to mobile phones and social media, followed by their websites. The software that runs those platforms requires photography or video with every single story. But finding or shooting those visuals competes for time journalists need for reporting and editing.

Intensifying the need, journalists are now judged internally by the page views their stories generate and the average number of minutes that visitors spend on them. Photos, graphics and videos are proven drivers of both.

Now, when I approach media relations, I remember how I always favored news releases and guest columns that arrived with photos or data charts attached. Just as appealing was contact information for a local expert I could meet within 48 hours for an interview on iPhone video.

  1. Develop relationships in social media.

We know that strong media relations result from mutual respect and responsiveness between PR practitioners and journalists. In their calmer moments, journalists know they need this, too.

Today, an efficient and healthy way for us to accomplish this is to follow key journalists on social media, read or watch their stories and comment constructively on their work. When the timing feels natural, post comments mentioning sources or follow-up angles that could help the reporter while featuring your client.

Pro tip: If a journalist posts a story about your client or employer that seems positive or constructive, say so in a comment and share it with a word of praise, tagging the writer. It’ll feel like a gift to a reporter who needs clicks and who may feel beaten down by attacks on Facebook and Twitter.

But never pitch an unrelated story in comments or – worse – DM a news release to a reporter. It looks like spam and feels intrusive to journalists, many of whom use personal social accounts to promote their work.

  1. Don’t waste too much time being nice.

Daily deadline pressure – compounded by dozens of extra tasks required for publishing on three or four digital platforms – causes journalists to live in a state of defensiveness over time. Mass email pitches that start slowly with kind salutations or attempts at personalization to journalists you don’t know, makes a lot of them even more defensive.

Writing, “Dear (name mail-merged here), I hope this finds you well” makes them, well … unwell.

Reporters I have asked about this say they now appreciate email that contains nothing but a traditional news release in the body. Headline. Date. Contact info. Hard-news lead. This old format still works today because its fast and easy to understand – a time-saving solution.

  1. Think podcasts and Facebook Live for opinion and “thought leadership.”

Guest columns – a PR tool for generations – are an endangered species in local news markets. It’s time to add more to our toolbox when considering ways to promote our potential newsmakers and their messages.

What happened?

Most newspapers have killed features sections and dropped the pages opposite the editorials (the “op-ed” page) where guest columns typically appeared. They’ve also dropped the editors who produced those pages and who had time to review PR pitches.

Today, even large metro newspapers need only two or three op-eds per week to fill their space. Staffers have no incentive to promote guest columns online because no one gets credit for the clicks. And on sites where content is blocked by a subscription paywall, readership of guest columns can be even more limited.

So, how else can we share the opinion of corporate leaders, public figures and experts in their field? Try working with podcasters and journalists who have launched Facebook Live shows and are reaching impressively large or very targeted mobile audiences. Most have a niche: business, science, food, politics. But they’re discovering that finding and scheduling new guests week in and week out is one of the hardest parts of the business.

That’s a problem that public relations professionals seem perfectly positioned to solve.

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