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Author Topic: "Our Local Media Relations" article  (Read 3034 times)


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"Our Local Media Relations" article
« on: March 02, 2003, 02:13:20 am »

This is my update to the "Our Local Media Relations" article originally posted in Sept.  Comments, suggested improvements welcome.


Note: A few months after I wrote the first version of this article below in September, 2002, Dallas TV reporter Jeff Crilley released a whole book on the subject.  It's a much better guide to media relations than I could ever provide.  And I recommend reading it...especially if you may have something to do with Porcupine PR.  The book is "Free Publicity" at  But if free *advice* is all you can afford, read on!


At some point, if it hasn't already, the FSP will truly dawn on the consciousness of the mainstream press. Since I work for a local TV newsroom and am also an FSP supporter, here are my thoughts on ways we can minimize potential press hostility to us - and maximize coverage - without compromising our principles. Though this advice is tailored toward our relations with local media, some of it should hold true for dealing with the more liberty-challenged national press.

First, an anecdote:

In covering the ultimate "federal vs. state" conflict - war in 1991 Yugoslavia - BBC reporter Misha Glenny made an observation that I also generally found to be true when I got there in '92. As you may recall, the "breakaway republic" of Croatia was in conflict with "Federal Yugoslav" forces, which were dominated by Serbian nationalists. Obviously this was a much more extreme situation than we'd ever face, since we're not even a secessionist movement. But there is a universal lesson to be learned from flawed but charming Croatia.

Glenny noted that Croatians seemed to instinctively understand it was important to be hospitable and accommodating to visiting reporters. But Serbs tended to be openly hostile to them, often assuming they were "the enemy" and that there was no hope of winning them over. Glenny says this affected early coverage of events, to the benefit of the Croatians. Initially neutral or unsympathetic to them, reporters couldn't help but be a little won over by Croat families inviting them into their bullet-riddled houses for shots of plum brandy while Croat authorities gave them decent access to the fighting. Positive press coverage eventually, perhaps decisively, helped Croatia win the war.

The media is like the wind, a force of nature. You can either fight it, like the Serbian nationalists did, or you can harness it. You harness it by being kind to reporters, figuring out what they need and getting it to them.

Here's what they need:

1) First, they need you to know just a little bit about how they operate in relation to you.  

On a day to day basis, newsrooms revolve around what's often called "the desk," or the "assignments editor."  This poor soul is, as Jeff Crilley puts it, always in combat mode, barely keeping up with incoming problems and opportunities from moment to moment.   He decides when and where to send reporters.  He handles incoming stacks of press releases and gives each release about 5 seconds of attention before deciding whether to throw it out.  Your call or news release will likely be routed to this busy person first, and it had better grab their attention fast.  

Reporters, on the other hand, have slightly more time. More on them later.

In live broadcast events, you may also need to take into account the needs of the "producer." Producers are the folks who organize the newscast timing/structure and write reporterless stories (i.e. those brought in by reporterless photographers or wire services).

Other things news people need:

2) A visual story.   Reporters do not particularly like news conferences and meetings - there's usually nothing interesting to photograph or videotape.  They'd much rather see ten of us burning our 1040s in front of the local IRS office on April 15.  Or a flea market benefiting the FSP.   Use your creativity to come up with something even more interesting than these, if you can!

3) A local story.  Houston TV stations, for instance, don't generally care what happens in Dallas, and they won't cover a national announcement by the FSP.   The event must occur in Houston's viewing area, preferably in Houston proper.

4) Straight talk.  They love straight talk.  The simpler and straighter the better.  If they ever sense you're fibbing to them or exaggerating, they may go sour.  If you ramble they may go to *sleep.*  And be cautious about "spinning."

I will admit, though, it is often helpful to overstate your flaws and underestimate expected attendance at an activity.  Low expectations are easier to exceed.

5) Good timing.  The easiest way to help assure coverage is to time your event so it happens at an "easy" time, on a slow news day.  Weekends and holidays are usually slow because government offices and most businesses are closed.   It's hard for reporters to get in touch with anyone, so they are often casting about desperately for something to cover.  There is an exception to the "weekend" rule, but we'll get to that later.

(continued in next message)
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Re:"Our Local Media Relations" article
« Reply #1 on: March 02, 2003, 02:13:58 am »

(continued from above):

6) Time itself. News people are usually short on it and worrying about their deadline. So whatever you do, make it short and simple, and don't waste their Time!  

One specific way to reduce your drain on the reporter's Time is to call her at work between 10:30PM and 6AM (or whenever she's not there).  Leave a voice mail message, and copy the gist of the message to e-mail for her.  Some reporters don't check their e-mail; others don't keep up with voice mail that well.  This of course assumes that you do not have something time-sensitive to tell them.

Another suggestion: Hold your event around 10:30AM.  Reporters generally get to the office around 10AM and have important deadlines between 5PM and midnight.  10:30AM events give them the most Time to put together maximum coverage of your event after they've left it around noon.   This time frame also enables them to get their lunch on time.  

One possible exception to the 10:30AM suggestion would be if you're able to schedule something to happen during a TV newscast, live.   Example: A convoy of RV owners from Kansas is gathering in Wichita to migrate to Wyoming.  They announce they are going to burn their Kansas state income tax forms at 5:05 PM (during the early evening newscast).   They announce they are going to drive off at 6:05 PM during the second evening newscast.   They also express a willingness to change the time a bit in order to accommodate the needs of the newscast producer.  

7) Relevance to current events.  This is that exception to the "weekend" rule. When there is a big event that has the media in a feeding frenzy, they will jump at any story that is even vaguely related to the big event, even if they're busy.  For instance, suppose you run PR for Porcupines in the Dallas area and the Cowboys go to the Super Bowl.  Maybe you could hold a signing ceremony two or three days before the game where a former Cowboy signs up for the FSP then plays ball with some local kids while wearing a Liberty in our Lifetime shirt.  

8) No spam!  I've heard talk of us sending out mass mailings as often as once a month that hit every local media outlet in the country. This could do more harm than good. The local press generally gets its national news from wire services. What *is* welcome by the local press is targeted communication about interesting FSP events that are going on in their viewing area.  If you really want coverage for a Fargo, ND event, contact each Fargo media outlet via e-mail, plus fax, plus phone.  

9) Cultivate relationships with reporters in your area whose work you genuinely like and who are in a position to cover your events themselves.  General assignment reporters and political reporters should be better able to do this than, say, police beat reporters.  Make a point of paying close attention to their work and leaving them a voice mail from time to time praising them when they do a cool story.

10) Access and openness. You can't stop them from doing a story!  And shutting the media out just makes it easier for them to make you look bad, if that's what they're after. Allow them as much unrestricted access as you can to our public meetings, etc., and return their calls promptly. As a rule, don't circle the wagons or stonewall when things go bad or we come under criticism.  

Since we're an organization of flawed humans, some of us are bound to screw up and get us bad press we actually deserve. This is sometimes an opportunity to win public support by being open about our legitimate flaws and acting to reduce them.

I remember a case where the GM at a station I used to work at served on the board of a local charity.  The charity discovered that one of its employees had abused a child under its care.  The charity board held a meeting, and a board member suggested keeping it quiet. The GM said no, announce the crime.  They did.  And the wrath of the media thus fell on the perpetrator rather than the charity.

Keep in mind I am talking about public matters here, not private ones.  Declining to answer questions of a personal nature or "party secrets" is fine.  Just don't get defensive, and don't lie.
11) Be yourself, but pick your words carefully.  For instance, if you want to tell the press we're planning to "take over" a state, hey I can't stop you.  But you're pushing all the wrong buttons.  "Taking over" probably isn't even possible with 20,000 people, but "nudging" the chosen state toward more individual liberty *is* possible.  Passionately supporting and enhancing its existing culture of freedom and the prosperity of its citizens, *that* is doable.  And neither of these phrases triggers the justifiably negative response that "takeover" does.

Again, only you can decide what you're going to say, but as Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

12) Avoid being overhelpful or nosy. Giving the press what they need without losing their respect is a subtle act.  If you come off as a backside-kissing groveler eager to please, that's almost worse than being at odds with them.  Nervous obsessing over what they're going to put in their story is pretty annoying, too.  Just be sociable, get them what they need, and let them do their thing.

13) Ask!  "Is there anything we can do to make this story easier for you to cover?" News people will never fault you for asking them that!  But keep in mind what helps one type of media, like television, may not necessarily help radio or print reporters.

Items 1-13 above are the carrot.  Now here's the stick.

If, after implementing suggestions 1-13, you find yourself rewarded with a troublingly  erroneous or biased piece, there are several steps you can take.

A) Let the reporter know your objections. But don't forget: It's not her job to make us look good; it's not her job to do what you want her to.  It's only her job to get the facts straight and steer clear of too much bias.  That's the territory where you have a fighting chance to make your point.

B) If the reporter is unsalvageable and you think it necessary, you can take your complaint to her boss.  Use the phone or written communication; generally don't try to confront them in person unless they suggest it.  The boss of the reporter is the editor-in-chief, the news director or assistant news director.  

Complaints about bias will get less attention than complaints about factual errors.  Document any substantial factual errors and unload them on the reporter's boss.  If you get nowhere with this boss, you can sometimes go to his general manager or on up the chain to the owners until you get results.

As a last resort, of course, you can sue the station or paper for libel.  This is like popping a nuke.  You can only win if you can prove that the media outlet reported substantial, damaging falsehoods with reckless disregard as to whether they were true.  Usually the plaintiff loses.  However, reporters, news directors and media corporate bosses tend to fear libel suits desperately, regardless of whether the suit is successful.  They can damage both careers and corporations, and potential defendants will often try to make peace rather than face a suit.  

It's our job to see to it that this is rarely or never necessary, that the big 13-point carrot we are carrying eliminates the need to use the stick.  

- D. O.
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