Dawn Reiss offers advice on working with journalists
Earlier this year I lead a panel discussion for non-profit communicators and other community members about how people with stories to offer the media can work with freelance journalists at Community Media Workshop’s Making Media Connections conference at Columbia College. I asked my colleague, independent journalist Dawn Reiss to write down some of the ideas she thought those approaching journalists should know. Here’s what she had to say.
Many publicists, media relations “experts” think they know what reporters really want. Most don’t and only a few actually find out. The good ones are former reporters. They understand deadlines, how to pitch, nudge but not overwork a reporter. Here are a few tips based on more than a decade in the business.
• Do some homework on the reporter before you pitch. Know what publications a reporter covers. If they cover a lot, like I do--newspapers, blogs, magazines, national and local outlets, online outlets--note the daily and long-term deadlines. Pitch appropriately. Google a reporter’s name. Most have something online.
• Pitch three story ideas. If you strike out on the first two, chances you’ll get it on the third try.
• Your story ideas answer this question: Why should we care? Also ask yourself, why is this important? Who does this affect?
• Cut out the bull. We don’t care about adjectives and superlatives. Just the facts. I don’t have time for the extraneous spin and colorful details with flowery writing. Find factoids, give bullets, short paragraphs, 3-4 at the most.
• When you give details, make sure you can back them up. If you say this is the tallest building in Chicago, give the height, square footage and the previous tallest building. The less initial research a reporter has to do, the more likely you are to get that reporter to follow-up.
• Make sure you have information online. It doesn’t matter if it is a website, Facebook page or a blog. I need to show my editor something.
• Give me all that fancy packet, brochure information in e-form. Just PDF it. It’s quicker. I hate snail mail. It takes too long and too bulky to keep track of.
• This is a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you the number of times people don’t do this. If you call and get a reporter on the phone who has questions and asks for a follow-up, actually follow-up. Ask their deadline, be prompt and try to get back before they originally asked and even if you don’t have the information they requested, call back and tell them so, so they aren’t waiting.
• Give me photos and videos. We live in a multi-media world. Many of us are mobile journalists. Photos sell a story. But don’t give me stock photos of an empty room. If it is a restaurant opening, give me photos with people in it. I may not need this in the initial pitch, but it certainly helps to paint a picture.
• Be “politely aggressive.” Pick up the phone and call. I get 300+ emails a day. Some reporters hate to be called. I don’t. If you get a reporter who hates phone calls, just apologize. The worst that can happen is they will be annoyed, but more likely they will just apologize for being overworked since newsrooms and freelancers are inundated with people trying to pitch them. The ratio I last heard was one pr to one reporter.
• Treat ALL reporters (and other people) with respect. You never know who will end up where next. It’s like a revolving door. A reporter may be someone’s editor in a year from now and vice versa. The most annoying thing is to have a publicist treat a freelancer like a “half-rate” journalist. I think approximately 50 percent of all journalists are now freelancers. Frankly, you’re more likely to get “in” with a freelance journalist who has to frequently pitch to a variety of editors than a reporter who has to worry less about writing a certain number of stories each month.
• Get on HARO (Help a Reporter Out), Profnet or Reporter Connection and become a resource. Once you become a source for one or two reporters you’re likely to get called again because reporters usually research what has already been written and go back to reliable sources.
• If you’re trying to find reporters to pitch, read bylines and check out some of these websites’ databases: mediabistro.com, CWIP (Chicago Women in Publishing), AWJ-Chicago (Association of Women Journalists-Chicago), Chicago Headline Club (the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the largest Chicago-based journalism organization), AAJA (Asian American Journalist Association) and Freelancesuccess.com, a great resource for freelancers and publicists. (There are plenty of others too.)
Use Social Media
This is so overlooked by so many people. You need to use it and think about the future. Everyone is going mobile. Most media organizations now have apps or are in the process of creating one. Look at how your website comes up on a smartphone. If it doesn’t work well, consider revamping your page.
• Make lists to help “divide and conquer” your different topics, reporters to follow, everyone.
• Consider using: Tweetdeck, Friendorfollow.com, PeopleBrowsr.com, Tweetmeme.com, Twitalyzer.com or Twinfluence.com
• Create a custom Twitter templates: Mytweetspace.com, Twitterbacks.com and Twitterbackgrounds.com
• RT (Re-Tweet), Pay a compliment, Pay it Forward.
• Consider putting a blog on your website. Write about industry trends about your non-profit. Make yourself an expert so the public and reporters view “you, the organization” as an expert.
• Consider posting links of stories reporters write or blog posts from your own website on viral sites. Consider sites like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, Facebook Share, Buzz, Fark, Del.icio.us, YouTube, as well as local sites like WindyCitizen and GapersBlock that repost and can aggregate, or national ones like Gawker and Jezebel.
• Create a page. It’s free. Post photos, updates, get fans, link to your website and to videos. Just make sure to monitor it. It’s an easy way to go viral and get your name out. Reporters frequently use Facebook pages for reliable sources, so it is a quick way to access people who are interested and/or knowledgeable about your non-profit, especially if reporters need sources.
Karen here. Let me just add this: Getting your news covered is about relationship building and communicating with journalists as quickly and succinctly as possible. Doing your homework will help on both counts. To help with that, consider subscribing to Community Media Workshop's (as of 2015, called Public Narrative) media guide, Getting On Air, Online and Into Print. It offers information on Chicago-area journalists and then some. Getting both the digial and printed version is a good investment. If you can't afford to buy the guide, call your library to see if they carry it. If they don't, ask them to get it. You'll be doing yourself and your neighbors a favor.
Also, when you call a journalists, whether they are an editor, a freelancer or staffer, after you identify yourself, ask them "is now a good time to talk?". Sometimes they are on deadline and can't talk and this acknowledges that you understand their working conditions and saves them from having to explain to you that they are busy at that moment.
Red Cross offers some interesting testimonials from broadcaster who've worked with them. Consider what is being said about them and consider whether journalists you're developing relationships with could say the same thing about you and your organization. The Red Cross mentions "partnering". When you have a story to tell, finding the right partner and holding up your end will matter.
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Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former St. Petersburg Times and Dallas Morning News staff writer. Her work has been published by 25+ outlets including: CNN.com, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, USA Today, Travel + Leisure, American Way and Life & Style. She is currently working for Time magazine and is a paid blogger for Trueslant.com . She practices what she preaches; she's on Facebook and Twitter. View her portfolio at www.mediabistro.com/dawnreiss. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-590-1921.