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How to Approach a Journalist

Published on July 17, 2017, at 12:15 p.m.
by Katie Willem.

Eric Alterman in his article “How PR Is Killing Journalism” entertains a very negative view of public relations. His thoughts come from this statement, in which he says, “The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been complicated. Yes, PR agents seek to manipulate journalists. That’s their job. ‘Free media’ — a news story that represents a positive point of view or story line — is incalculably more valuable to any product or cause than ‘paid media,’ that is, a paid advertisement (to say nothing of much cheaper).”

For the most part, Alterman is not wrong. PR professionals do value “free media,” but we learned that free media to be something honestly earned from the very first classes taught in the public relations curriculum.

Ben Silverman responds to Alterman best in his article “Public Relations and Journalism: More Similar Than You Might Think.” He says, “I’ve always known what a difficult job public relations can be; like any profession, there are good and bad people working in the field.”

Silverman says he learns more about public relations by dealing with both the good and bad practitioners on a day-to-day basis, but he seems to be overall proud of the public relations industry.

So, how can a public relations professional make it through the narrow gate of earning free media without crossing the line between selling a story and manipulating a journalist into thinking there is a story when there’s not one?

The best way to answer this? Ask the decision-makers themselves — the journalists.

Two old time typewriters on a shelf. 1. What’s the most common mistake or fault you see in media kits, press releases and event promotions you receive?

“The most common mistake I often see is overselling. I often get press releases where it seems the person writing it is trying to say too much, instead of laying out the most important facts so they can be easily discerned. When things in a press release or media kit become too muddled, the high points can be easily lost in the static, and it defeats the purpose of concise communication.”
— Ryan Phillips, editor of the Starkville Daily News, Mississippi

“When a pitch says something along the lines of ‘We need your help getting the word out.’ My job as a journalist is not to promote or endorse your organization or company, no matter how noble the cause. Consider the news organization you are pitching to and what kinds of stories they do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Does your pitch seem like something that would be a good fit for that publication? If not, you might skip that organization or find a more relevant way to pitch the story.”
— Whittney Evans, reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City

“Well, that’s tricky. The biggest I see is spelling. Kids now-a-days are so fast with their writing, proofreading has become second nature to them. A simple address spelled wrong or even a period in the wrong place could lead to major problems down the road when the event actually takes place. In today’s society, people move so fast that they don’t go back and check their work before turning it in. Proofreading is still one, if not the most important, part of any journalistic field, PR included.”
— Cole Thompson, PR assistant with the NFL Draft, columnist

“The biggest mistake in media kits is not having a reliable number for a contact on the day of an event. I’ve had (on a number of occasions) the misfortune of getting someone on the phone who says ‘I’m sorry, that person is at the event you want to talk about.’ The only loser is the PR firm that wants coverage, because I’ve likely moved on.”
— Pat Duggins, news director at Alabama Public Radio

“The most common problem is spam. I get about 30 press releases a day, and many of them are just spam. Be clear and concise in the headline and stand out so that spam filters don’t catch your release. Also, include contact info that is easy to find near the top of the release. I might only read a few sentences so get to the point. Include pictures and video. Even radio stations are now multi-media.”
— Cory Crowe, news director at KEDM Public Radio, LA

Man taking picture on phone.

2. Explain what qualities in stories you look for when thinking about what to cover, especially the qualities you expect from a PR firm/personnel.

“It all starts with the audience. When you can understand what the audience is looking for and how they process information, then bridging that gap becomes easier. For us at the local level at a small community newspaper, we will run little league baseball photos out front because that is what our readers want to see, which isn’t exactly a practice you would see incorporated by the New York Times or Washington Post. Every medium is different and audiences differ across each niche, so I think understanding the audience is the single most important factor in determining what to cover.”
— Ryan Phillips, editor of the Starkville Daily News, Mississippi

“As someone who works in public radio, I am typically not interested in isolated events. I like stories that have broader implications. If it is the story of one person, one family or one organization, it needs to be extraordinary. I want to learn about something, get insight into a problem that exists or have my beliefs challenged.”
— Whittney Evans, reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City

“For me, I look at telling the story no one else has told. I wrote a piece back in February on a player for East Carolina and how he went from being a zero star prospect to the all-time leader in receptions in FBS history. Everyone wanted to talk about how he did that season; I talked about what he didn’t do. People want to read a story one time. If 20 of the same stories are out there, they’ll read just one. If you tell a different story, sure you may put more time into it, but you’ll also be the only person telling that story. My biggest piece of advice; show, don’t tell. A person can tell their own story; a good writer can show the story as it unfolds.”
— Cole Thompson, PR assistant with the NFL Draft, columnist

“For Alabama Public Radio, it’s what’s of statewide interest (I hear is in a similar boat). We rarely go after hyper-local stories. In a PR firm, it’s also nice to have people with some journalistic background, and who understand the pressures and requirements of broadcasters. These kinds of people can tailor material, so a newsroom gets what it want, while the PR client gets exposure. Everyone comes out ahead!”
— Pat Duggins, news director for Alabama Public Radio

“Know what the station does before sending a blanket release. I will eventually block all releases and your good release won’t get through. I look for local or statewide interest. Outside of that, my listeners don’t care, unless it will somehow help them. Also, make sure the interview pleasing to the listener’s ear and that you have the proper equipment to conduct the interview. Don’t call on a cell phone. Take time to set up the interview with a landline phone or computer in a quiet place.”
— Cory Crowe, news director at KEDM Public Radio, LA

Newspaper Stand

3. What a public relations practitioner do to improve their chances of having their story picked up?

“Lay out the most important facts and cut the fat. Many times I have received press releases that may have 400 words worth of quotes, which I will ultimately look past in favor of the most important details. Keep things concise and your message will be more easily understood.”
— Ryan Phillips, editor of the Starkville Daily News, Mississippi

“Tailor the pitch to the organization. If the story is an education story, address it to the education reporter. Maybe say, ‘Hey, I saw you did a similar story last year and thought you might be interested in this as a follow up.’ Get to know your outlets and what they do. If it’s radio, mention potential sound opportunities. Do the same with TV. Watch how many attachments you add to emails. It can slow things down and overshadow the pitch itself. Make the pitch simple and direct. If they want attachments like photos and graphs, you can always send them later.”
— Whittney Evans, reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City

“For starters, throw it out to every media outlet you can. The worst you will hear is a no and that’s not the end of the world. Second, become close with the journalist. If a journalist will turn in a story for you, that’s a huge plus because they are putting their name on the line for your story. Usually that means they trust you and feel comfortable enough with your writing to stick their neck out for you. Finally, find a writing style you like and feel comfortable with. If you can’t tell an emotional tear-jerking story, don’t try to. It won’t come out the way you want it to and it will just end badly. If you feel comfortable writing a humor piece, use that angle and run with it. Finding your voice and your stylistic approach is key in writing.”
– Cole Thompson, PR Assistant for the NFL Draft, columnist

“For us, it’s not too early to give us notice two weeks in advance. I’ve had way too many failed opportunities where someone calls and says ‘guess what’s happening today?’ Unless it’s Elvis back from the grave, I’ve already deployed my troops. Also, target materials for Mondays, holidays and weekends. That’s when the least amount of news is happening, but newsrooms still have rundowns to fill.”
– Pat Duggins, news director at Alabama Public Radio

“Don’t call. I don’t have the time to talk for 30 minutes about something my listeners don’t care about. Localize all releases you send, but no more than one page.”
– Cory Crowe, news director at KEDM Public Radio, LA

Video camera recording man.4. Can you remember a notice you’ve received from a PR practitioner that was exceptional? What qualities did it have?

“You can always tell when someone first worked in journalism and crossed over into PR because their press releases will read like news stories and it is a pain to rewrite. You see this often with bigger corporations that are savvy enough to hire away journalists because they require less technical training than someone fresh out of PR school.”
— Ryan Phillips, editor of the Starkville Daily News, Mississippi

“I don’t usually cover sports-related stories, but I have done a few pieces on concussions. A local university PR person remembered my story and pitched a related story to me directly. I had the scoop! We aren’t necessarily partners. Media ultimately have the final say in what they publish. That’s why it’s important to make the pitch worthwhile. That’s how we both win. Symbiosis!”
— Whittney Evans, reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City

“My piece on Zay Jones last year was praised by the East Carolina staff. They messaged me and thanked me for telling a story so professionally without leaving out many details. The biggest honor I have received is being able to work alongside a current Alabama teacher and my personal mentor, Lars Anderson, on his new book ‘The Quarterback Whisperer.’ Anytime your former teach asks you to help out with a project, that’s a huge honor in my standards. It not only shows that they saw something in you, [but also] they’re willing to give you a chance to better yourself for the future. It’s an amazing feeling to see your hard work in book stores all across America.”
— Cole Thompson, PR assistant for the NFL Draft, columnist

“Back when I was in Orlando, the newsroom would actually wait with anticipation on what Universal Studios would do to promote its ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ event. Sometimes it would be a macabre jack-in-the-box, or a cut-off rubber hand in a box. It was expensive, I’m sure, but doing things that make you stand out in a crowd never hurts.”
— Pat Duggins, news director for Alabama Public Radio

“Usually just the facts and a one or two quick facts about why this issue is important. I get bombarded daily with political releases from some crazy liberal or conservative issue. The best ones have an interview opportunity with someone knowledgeable and important. I don’t want to to talk with some underling. Let me talk to the expert or the guy that makes the decisions. If you don’t have them, don’t call.”
— Cory Crowe, news director at KEDM Public Radio, LA

Looking at these answers from those working in or with the journalism field around the United States, it’s hard to give a straight answer as to the true way to earn free media. Every journalist has their own unique style that they incorporate into their work. My final question is what is the best way to use this information?

The best thing to do is to form a relationship and ask the journalist you will be pitching to what they need to write your story. To work ethically and earn free media because the company you represent deserves the media, and if your company makes a mistake, always have a transparent crisis communication plan that is able to be dispersed to the journalists in your repertoire. The trust that you’ve built with them before the crisis, because you’ve had a honest and ethical relationship, will be the thing saving you and the art of journalism.


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