A Journalist’s 9 Tips for Earning Media Coverage

If they’re not born that way, journalists are trained to be cynics. Indeed, the first lesson of journalism is this: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”

Every newspaper of any size has an “Outrageously Bad or Stupid PR Pitches” file. And for a couple of years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was the Star-Telegram’s semiofficial keeper of said file, though all reporters and editors contributed to it. Smug? Yes. But it’s the nature of the beast in newsrooms.

Yet it may surprise you that journalists do respect PR professionals who understand the news business and how reporters think. So, whether you’re head of communications for your brand or a PR agency newbie, it’s critical that you understand what reporters want – and don’t want – from you.

So how do you know what is newsworthy? There’s no universal answer, but here are some tips:

  • Know where/when the story will likely run. Will it be a banner on the business page, or tucked into a corner on the fourth page? Will it be shown at the top of the newscast? After the first commercial break? Before the jump to weather? Those are positions reporters fight to get. Give them a story capable of winning that fight. And if you know it’s just not newsworthy, be honest with your boss (or client) and maintain a good relationship with the reporters by not pitching them weak stories. You’ll need their respect later.
  • Accept that your product/service might not be the real focus of the story. The story your company wants may not be the one the journalist wants to tell. So think about how your product or service fits into the journalist’s story. Pitch one of your brand’s execs as an expert able to comment on, or explain, the technical aspects of the journalist’s bigger/broader story. You won’t get the headline, but you’ll get valuable mentions.
  • Try a public affairs angle. If your product or service won’t earn a journalist’s attention, pitch a story about your brand’s involvement in local public affairs. Are employees cleaning up a park? Adopting a few miles of a local highway? Building a house for Habitat For Humanity? Tutoring 5th grader? Anything, really? Sometimes the story isn’t the company, it’s the people at the company. Pitch that and cultivate a relationship with a grateful reporter who may do a more substantive story later.
  • Don’t insult them with trinkets. Don’t insult journalists with low-value trinkets and swag. Some PR people think reporters like it, but they just make insulting jokes about it after you’ve left the room. There are a few exceptions, but be very careful. In general, if you’re not sure, don’t do it.
  • Get to know the reporters. Sit down with them for lunch or coffee and ask them straight up, “What’s newsworthy to you, especially in terms of this or that client or industry?” Get to know them as people. Where’d they grow up? Where did they go to school? What do they enjoy doing? Most will appreciate the personal interest as long as you don’t make it feel like a checklist you’re working through just to co-opt them.
  • Tailor your story to the outlet. Not all news outlets are the same. At some stations, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Others promote “investigative” stories. Some papers are 100 percent local boosters. Others feel it’s their mission to “speak truth to power” by writing snarky stuff about local companies and big wigs. Know your publications and stations before you approach them with a news release or a pitch.
  • Offer exclusives. Reporters (and their editors and business-side executives) are suckers for “exclusives.” Their business is intensely competitive. You won’t bat a thousand offering exclusives – and exclusives are not always appropriate – but if your story has enough news value that they might cover it even without an exclusive, then offering an exclusive will guarantee that it will get covered. Once they commit time and resources to your story, there’s a 99 percent chance it’ll run. But be careful. Offering exclusives on “lame” stories will damage your credibility and earn the reporter’s lasting enmity.
  • Give reporters your home and/or cell number. It’s a signal that you’ll help them, especially with breaking stories at their deadline time. It says to them, “I understand your needs.” And if they call, answer and provide the best answer you can, even if it messes up your family dinner or night at the movies.
  • Be honest and upfront with your boss/client. Tell them (diplomatically) when the story they want to tell isn’t newsworthy. They’re not journalists. They don’t know what reporters want or need. So teach them. Then come up with a creative way to pose their “news” as part of a bigger story (see note above).

Guest Blog Author: Dan Reed is a communications, media and strategic consultant with decades of experience as a journalist for USA Today and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he built a reputation as one of the nation’s top airline beat reporters. Also an author of two books and a contributor to Forbes, Dan holds a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Arkansas.

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