I had the opportunity this week to work with a client experiencing a serious crisis issue. In the midst of helping, I faced one of those moments that can make even the most experienced PR pro wince, namely being surrounded by a large group of reporters with cameras shouting questions from all sides while I was trying to diffuse a potentially contentious situation.
While most of us will, luckily, never face a crisis situation like that, it triggered a thought about this post which I had started earlier in the week. That is, all of us have a bit of that uncomfortable visual in mind when we think about media relations. No matter how extroverted, or confident any business executive is, the most polished professional can freeze up when the camera lens turns his or her way. In reality, most businesses spend much more effort trying to get media to pay attention than they ever do dealing with negative issues.
The key to successful media relations is effective training of company executives and spokespersons. Not all small businesses can afford the expense or time of formal training, so we’ve prepared a short series for the Business Resource Center that can help. The first step in being effective is understanding the media, the focus of today’s post.
Hyper competitive marketplace
The first step in understanding reporters is to understand just how competitive the market in which they operate is. There are ever fewer “traditional” outlets and they are all under continual cost pressure. This in turn means there are fewer full-time reporters trying to cover a broader scope of issues than ever before (as well as playing multiple roles, today a reporter is generally writing stories, capturing his or her own photos and video, blogging and maintaining an active online presence). Add to that, the “win” for a reporter comes from having a good news story before anyone else (that can even sometimes involve reporters at the same publication competing for a byline). What makes that story “good” is the newness or controversy factor because at the end of the day that is what “sells.” Humans will always read “Man Bites Dog,” before “Dog Bites Man.”
What does that mean for media training? First, when a reporter contacts you it’s easy to think “why couldn’t they have given me a little notice?” In reality, the same reporter is likely working on multiple other stories at the same time, constantly scanning incoming information to make sure they are not missing a big news event, and has very little time to finish the story. In short, make yourself available right away. Second, when contacting a reporter about your company’s news, try to have a reporter’s perspective in mind. In the noise of all of that incoming information, what will make your news stand out? And keep in mind, if there’s a major breaking news story, even your most interesting news won’t get the attention it deserves.
Also, the time to have company spokespersons chosen and executives prepared is before a reporter calls. In general, especially with small business, you’ll want as senior of an executive as possible available to speak to a reporter. Reporters will appreciate the access to decision makers as well as the perspective the executive brings to the table. It is also a good idea to have a company spokesperson designated – generally someone in a senior marketing or communications role. A spokesperson can be a good “first line of contact” for reporters – ensuring any inquires are not lost in busy executive inboxes, and can represent the company when executives are not available or would rather not address a specific issue.
In addition to wanting to be first to tell a story, a reporter is also motivated to ensure a story is balanced. That means they want to include multiple points of view, especially if there are different or even conflicting ones. (Even with cost constraints, most reporters still need stories approved by editors who will insist on multiple points of view if the reporter does not.)
This approach means reporters are naturally inquisitive and rarely take information at face value. And they are going to ask questions that get them the new or controversial element that will make their story interesting.
For media training this means an understanding that reporters are not asking hard questions just to put you on the spot. They are working to ensure they have considered all sides of an issue, they are considering the news from the perspective of their readers/viewers, and, ideally, they are looking for a great quote or soundbite they can use to boost interest in their story. So, if you are able to take a step back from your company’s news and consider other ways outsiders may see it, and what questions they may ask about it, you’ll be prepared when you walk into any interview. We’ll talk more about preparation for an interview in the next post.
At all times keep in mind, “marketing speak” does not fly with reporters. If you try to give a reporter the same sales pitch you’d make to a potential customer, it’ll fall flat. You’ll want a “media version” of company information, facts, announcements, etc. that focuses on factually-based superlatives and removes any extraneous marketing hype.
Beyond deadlines – social media has changed everything
There was a time when a reporter had until late afternoon/early evening to finish a story. Once news was available online that changed – reporter deadlines moved up when being first meant being first to post something online. As few as three years ago, we included a segment in media trainings about the effect of blogs on more “traditional journalism” and how they were further accelerating deadline pressure.
All of that has changed because of social media. News can break instantly, especially on Twitter. Most reporters have had to develop a following on social media channels to remain competitive, and, in addition to the hundreds of pitches they receive a day, they are actively watching social media for story ideas and developments.
In terms of media training there’s actually an upside to this. Following a reporter on social media, especially Twitter, can give you tremendous insight into their interests, trends, and needs that simply aren’t going to come through in finished stories. On the flip side, it also means you need to be as aware of your company and industry’s real-time reputations in the social media sphere when you want to share news, because reporters will certainly already know what is being said about you.
The next post will discuss how to prepare your company’s story and how to prepare for the interview. In the meantime, if you have questions about interacting with reporters please let me know!