The dirty little secret of media relations

When reporters speak in public about how they gather information and decide which stories to write, they tend to sound like scientific researchers, claiming to spend long hours objectively sifting through data until they find stories worthy of coverage. But in a rare display of honesty, New York Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham had the courage to admit in a recent blog post that the “sifting through data” method isn’t really how stories get covered. “It’s not an exact science. It is more a balance between intuition and reporting,” she wrote. “The tipping point – the moment at a which a start-up moves from being an interesting company on the periphery of your radar to a notable one that is prime for covering is hard to pinpoint. In some ways, it’s just a feeling based on experience.” That’s about as far as Wortham takes us into the sausage-making factory. But commenter “Matt Braynard” took it a step further: “[Reporters] are incapable of making the correct decisions on these things … You’re the unknowing marionettes of whichever tech firm’s marketing department figures out how to best pull your strings and manipulate you into writing what they want you to write.”

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make ...
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The dirty little secret of media relations is that the commenter is basically right. There are millions of businesses worthy of media coverage, yet only a select few receive it every day. Why? In almost all cases, it’s because they employ skilled media relations professionals who know how to craft press releases and pitches, schmooze with journalists, provide information and graphics that journalists can use to supplement their stories, and maintain positive relationships over time to ensure future coverage. It’s what I do for clients, it’s what every PR person is (or should be) doing, and it is how the game is played.

Here’s another little secret: Media owners understand this dynamic and tacitly support it. They under-fund investigative news-gathering operations while paying journalists to sit at their computers and process pitches that can be quickly and cheaply turned into news stories.

As publicists, we can usually sidestep these weightier issues and focus on the task at hand – getting coverage. Here are some of the ways good PR professionals position themselves to successfully generate a steady stream of media placements:

  • Good data. Every media outreach begins with information, the more the better. Where does your story fit, or where could it fit if you changed the emphasis? Are there more journalists covering one aspect of an industry (say, cloud-based companies) versus others (say, server hardware and software). Where are those journalists based, and whom do they work for? How does their news site operate – is it independent or part of a network of sites? Do they cover a lot of breaking news or do they prefer longer trend stories? All of these details help you zero in on your targets and improve your chances for success.
  • Information you can share. Only the Googles of the world can get away with making a media announcement and then shutting the door on further inquiry. The rest of us have to be prepared to provide interesting and timely information that enables the journalist to tell a wider story. Pitches that scream “look at me” are the first ones journalists discard. Publicists who couch their promotional message in broader terms (“here’s what products like ours can do for consumers”) get a second look.
  • Staying on good terms. Friends do favors for friends. This extends to the PR-media relationship, even though many journalists are loathe to admit it. The busy journalist will take a call or read an email from someone they know and like, while skipping the ones from strangers. So cultivate your media relationships, tend them like a garden, and give them time to grow. Keep your data fresh so you know when a journalist changes positions. Reach out to newcomers and start the cultivation process over again.
  • Biting your tongue. Pre-Internet, there used to be a saying: “Don’t argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.” In the bits and bytes era, the same sentiment holds true: Don’t get into pissing matches with journalists – you can’t win. If something appears that is substantially factually wrong, then politely seek a correction. Don’t moan if the story is factually correct but not the angle you were hoping for. Don’t make a day-after call when you see a story about your industry that doesn’t include your company – it’s too late and wastes the reporter’s time.
  • Leverage your strengths. The Wortham article references a few key pieces of data that can tip the balance and generate coverage for a tech start-up, including high-profile venture capital investors. If you’ve got them, use them. If not, you’ve got to find something else. Can your CEO speak to larger industry trends? Do you have a factory where you can offer an interesting tour? Do you have a wacky scientific co-founder or a mom-turned-entrepreneur angle? Don’t be afraid to flaunt these advantages – they are crucial to your success.

Finally, some perspective: the only thing notable about the dynamic I’ve described is that it has tended to stay hidden. Most other industries openly work this way – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and who works the hardest for the sale. For PR pros, the trick is to extend this lesson to media relations.


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