At this year’s 2019 GMAC™ Annual Conference pre-conference sessions, Catenya McHenry, communications director for the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, delivered an insightful presentation on media relations and communications.
Leaning on her experience as a former broadcast news anchor and reporter and current role as senior communications counselor at the McCombs School, Catenya McHenry shared “real-life” insights to help conference participants better prepare for their own interactions with the media, as well as in their capacity serving executives at their schools.
Here are four tips I thought about during the session that summarize best practices in effectively creating news and storylines around earned media initiatives that schools can execute to create impact for students and the communities they represent.
- Before drafting a pitch, research your angle
Before you think about pitching a journalist, take a moment to research your angle. This is your opportunity to establish how your story measures up against similar coverage in the past or if it’s truly unique, creating a new opening for coverage. You may think the research that your school produces is the first of its kind, but that may not be true. Before going public, determine whether or not your pitch is original, or if you’re adding new insight to an existing storyline in the pitch. Either can still result in good coverage.
Here are two goals to guide you in your research:
- Find the opportunity. Identify journalists and outlets that haven’t covered the topic, or a question left unanswered by existing news that only your story and expert(s) can address.
- Show journalists you’ve read their stories. You want reporters to know you’ve read what they’re writing, and that you’re pitching them for this story based on their interests or what they’ve written about before. Be transparent and establish your pitch based on insights from your research.
- Anticipate needs
Once you’ve secured interest in your pitch, be prepared for the next step. Getting a bite from a reporter doesn’t mean the work is done—it’s just the first step toward relationship building. Here are things to procure before pitching:
- Infographics/Charts/Digital. Does the reporter often use images? Video? Don’t wait until after your outreach to determine how you want to visually present your story. Have your visuals packaged and ready to pull off-the-shelf.
- Spokesperson Identification/Stakeholder Briefings. What if your pitch is so timely that the reporter wants to run with it in 24 hours? Do you know your spokesperson’s schedule? Also, while reporters often seek out their own contacts, new sources who offer compelling and expert insight can both lead to a better story and ensure that the reporter will come back to you for commentary on similar stories in the future. Make sure you know who your third-party stakeholders are and brief them so they are ready to speak with the reporter. Also, help your spokesperson speak in 10 second soundbites. This makes for more impactful broadcast appearances and helps to summarize key messages in short soundbites. This is looked upon favorably by producers at TV and radio outlets. And remember, don’t let scheduling and a lack of preparedness be the culprit for a story that could have been.
- Collateral. The press release is never the story. It’s the supporting collaterals that matter. Journalists will write their own story, so make sure the inch or two you get includes the most relevant content, often the quote from your CEO or subject matter expert. Have a quote sheet you can share from your third-party stakeholders in case the journalist can’t track them down or is on a tight deadline. Create a Q&A document that will help your organization respond to the toughest questions you can think of. Make sure you have a process to get press collaterals approved beforehand. This will help ensure that you’re focused on the big picture—and not just getting the press release out on time.
- Introductions and contacting media
Achieving coverage that you (and your superiors) are looking for is never easy. I’ve heard this saying many times … “you’re only as good as your pitch!” That is certainly where it starts, so don’t lose your story by forgetting how to introduce yourself and what you’re offering. Here are a few things to consider that I’ve leaned on over the years. They will help you ensure that at a minimum, your outreach will be understood and well-received.
- You’re not the story, but introduce yourself. If you’re working with a journalist you know and have worked with through the years, think about the first time you reached out and use that approach for new contacts. Leave no room for misinterpretation of what you’re telling them, be overt in sharing the kind of news you can offer, highlight executives and thought leaders you work with. Make sure they know you are a trusted resource who can contribute something valuable to their beat. After you properly introduce yourself in a personal way, hopefully establishing yourself as someone the reporter would like to work with, then state your intentions. Also, be ready to tell them about the experts in your organization that can help offer insight in their stories. Think of the introduction as an elevator pitch.
- Prioritize the elements of your story when pitching. The easiest way to kill a pitch is by including EVERYTHING about what you’re trying to sell. Take a step back, identify the top one or two messages/storylines, and think about other ways to leverage the lower-tier stuff through other owned and shared channels. Maybe the items you like, but ultimately exclude, will make great social media posts. Don’t risk losing the entire story by trying to pitch the journalist on every single thing you want them to write.
- There’s still room for humanity. The term “journalist” often elicits fear in people, particularly for those who have to work with them and speak on the record. While I was spokesperson at the Federal Aviation Administration many years ago, speaking on the record daily, I learned something. While in any profession there are people who might burn you, I haven’t let myself forget that reporters are people. The vast majority of them have a critical job to do and it’s our job as media professionals to work within a framework that helps them report facts in a way that educates the public. When you drill down to that level, you realize that working with the media is truly a noble calling as they are the ones, in part, responsible for representing your interests with the audience you’re trying to reach. So, don’t forget to treat reporters like who they are, human beings. It’s okay to show empathy, it’s okay as you build a relationship to ask them how they’re doing, or to share something outside your lane that might be of interest to them. Humanity, kindness and honesty are the hallmarks of any good relationship.
- Be curious, you can ask questions too. Ask what they’re working on, share a previous story and correlate it to what you’re pitching to show that you’ve taken the time to read and analyze their previous work. Confirm their issue interests and that their portfolio is the same as the last time you reached out if it’s a pre-existing contact.
- Digital connections. Every journalist has a presence on social media. One of the best ways to engage and grow a relationship with a reporter is to connect on their social channels. When appropriate and consistent with your communications objectives, share and promote their stories, comment on them, engage in a dialogue with other readers. Connect via platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. This can help to distinguish you from other sources.
- The best relationships are two-way streets, don’t always have your hand out
Reporters need sources, but that doesn’t always equate to needing a public relations professional. Be genuine, go above and beyond and do things that maybe aren’t necessary, but show you’re thinking about what they need.
Here are some tips to consider:
- Timeliness. Just the other day I received a note from a reporter I work with frequently. I’ll paraphrase, but it essentially said, “I really appreciate how quickly you get me the materials I ask for.” Now, that’s not just me and my commitment to being available and accessible. I also have an awesome team around me that always works to provide the data and commentary that is required for a story we care about. Get your contacts the information they need before the deadline, and not just right before if possible. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but when you’re able, deliver early.
- Share on digital. Social media again can be your friend when it comes to relationship building in the media. At GMAC, we consistently share earned media coverage across our digital channels, both to accentuate coverage but also to highlight the reporter working to cover our industry. Newsrooms also track readers and engagement, the more hits a story receives the more likely that outlet will be to continue its coverage of that topic. And while not appropriate for every story, when possible, send a thank you note and let the reporter know you appreciate working with them, and their coverage. Also, be sure to tag the outlet and the reporter on social media when possible.
- Identify opportunities for your reporters to increase their own brand. I’ll give a current example. I’m broadening GMAC’s reach regarding the type of reporters we work with. We are in the graduate management education industry, but issues impacting b-schools carry over to trade between nations, access to talent and economic growth and value creation around the world. I have an opportunity to build a student mobility roundtable at a conference in October. I view the panel as an opportunity to expand GMAC’s bench of media contacts. I am reaching out to trade, labor and economic policy journalists to see if I can make a connection. Not all journalists want to raise their profile, but if you have opportunities for them to come in and moderate panels or speak to your school on an issue of shared interest, I encourage you to do that. It’s another step in the building of a two-way, strategic relationship.
- Don’t just communicate when you have an ask. This gets to the heart of the two-way relationship. If a reporter only hears from you when you have a pitch, odds are that relationship will sour rather quickly. Don’t always be the one with your hand out. Find opportunities to stay in touch. It’s a balance, you don’t want to spam them. Use your judgement and identify ways to be present, and helpful, but not a nuisance. It’s not too forward to ask them what they’re working on. They need content daily, which means there are tons of opportunities for you.
As McHenry said during her presentation, planning and preparedness are your best friends when it comes to pitching and interacting with the media. I couldn’t agree more. But remember, while interactions with the press are part of our “work,” don’t forget that journalists are human! Be honest and judicious in your approach, find ways to help them, and think of “the pitch” as part of a longer continuum of your communications with your target journalists. By following these steps and integrating them within your own framework, I’m confident you’ll be on your way to building successful relationships that will greatly benefit your school and stakeholders.