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Building relationships with the media

Published on 28/04/15

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An endorsement by the traditional media (newspapers, magazines, television or radio) is one of the biggest stimulants an organisation can have.

Despite the undisputed rise of digital media platforms and their importance to the marketing mix, PR remains strong and the traditional media remains the most powerful influencer of opinion. If you can get the media to believe in you it will be much easier to convince potential customers or service user to believe in you.

Like most sectors, the media has experienced ‘downsizing’ in staffing levels in recent years. A consequence of this is the media, and newspapers particularly, are very receptive to contributed material to fill their pages. You would be surprised how many ‘news’ stories which appear in a newspaper start life as a contributed press release. However, to utilise the media you need to have an understanding of how it works.

So, to help you increase your understanding of the media let’s start with the type of person you will be dealing with once you set off on your media relations path. We all know that journalists don’t have the best of reputations. Can they be trusted? Are they looking to stitch you up? Are they only interested in bad news? These are just some of the thoughts which might be going through your mind.

The reality is the vast majority of journalists - particularly those working in the local media - are thoroughly decent and professional people.

Yes, there is a degree of truth in the view that bad news tends to make larger headlines than good news. If a hospital achieves excellent results in its annual assessment, it will make a story. But it will be a much bigger story (probably front page) if it achieves very poor results. Everything in life is relative but if you can offer an interesting, good news story, the media will be receptive.

OK, so now it’s time to start building those all-important relationships with the media. As with all relationship-building, the secret is to tread carefully to start with and don’t be too pushy or gushing.

Most of you will probably have two or three key media outlets you wish to target in your chosen area. Your first job is to discover the most pertinent person within the media outlet to make contact with. Some newspapers have reporters who cover specific sectors such as health, education, business, leisure, etc. When you telephone the newspaper, ask initially for editorial or the newsroom. Once you are through, ask if they have a journalist who specifically covers your area of expertise. If they do, that’s your person. If they don’t explain who you are and who would be the best person to speak to. It could be they have a system whereby the reporters cover a geographical area in which case they may put you in touch with your ‘local’ reporter.

What you are looking to do with this first contact is to introduce yourself – but as a potential useful contact, not a pest. Discretion is the name of the game. This is most definitely not a sales pitch.

The conversation should go something like this:

”Hello, my name is xxxx. I just wanted to quickly introduce myself. I run xxxxxx. I plan to send out press releases to you in the future which I hope you will find interesting so I wanted to check who the best person is to send them to. However my main reason for calling was really to say that if you are ever doing an article on (insert here you subject area) I would be very happy to help you with any technical information, background material or comments.”

The direction of the conversation from this point on will largely be driven by the journalist’s response.Some may merely thank you and ask for your contact details (you should make sure you offer these if you are not asked) for future use, while others may pursue the conversation further – even to the point where, if you are lucky, they may even suggest an article on you.

Of course, if you think there’s something about your organisation which might be newsworthy, don’t miss the opportunity to mention it during this first conversation. Don’t however, keep the journalist on the phone with a half-hour diatribe on the history of your organisation and what it does. The journalist may ask you more about your organisation if he is interested but let him take the initiative.

The purpose of this phone call is to lay the foundations for long-term useful relationships with the journalist. You want the journalist to see you as a useful ally. If a story results from this conversation, treat it as a very pleasant bonus, but don’t try a hard sell. Remember, discretion is the key.

Making journalists know you are always available for comment on an issue relevant to your sector is important. If potential customers, supporters and other key stakeholders keep seeing you quoted as a voice of authority on subjects raised in the media, your esteem will rocket in their eyes.

Now you know a little more about building relationships with the media, the next thing to learn is what makes news. Look out for our next blog at the end of May and all will be revealed.