10 Ways to Make Headlines
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 12:00 AM
It's every entrepreneur's dream: to see your business's name in lights. But with thousands of companies competing in hundreds of verticals for the same limited number of column inches, blog posts and precious seconds of airtime, let's level: It's not easy to score the precious publicity boost that placement in your local newspaper or an influential website can provide. Nor, for that matter, is avoiding the trap of becoming yesterday's news.
However, the upside for even the leanest startups is that these days, it doesn't take massive marketing and public relations budgets or lavish events to generate serious ink. Mind you, there's no one simple strategy for breaking into every outlet--each is actually a broad collection of self-contained sections staffed by a unique team of reporters with various backgrounds, interests and needs. But employ the simple tips below, and who knows? You too could soon be making headlines.
1.Get your story straightAsk yourself: What makes my company unique? Because with countless rivals out there competing for the same space, what's to make an editor choose you out of a sea of faceless competitors? Knowing this, it's imperative that you instantly set yourself apart from the pack in journalists' minds. Look at things from their perspective--they need to immediately identify compelling stories, then condense and translate these gems into digestible nuggets that anyone can enjoy. So start by picking three attributes, or unique sales points, that present your case and weaving them into a compelling narrative, which makes it fast and simple to see where a potential fit lies.
2.Perfect your pitchDecided how you want to present yourself? Great--now brush up on that elevator pitch and figure out how to do it in 30 seconds or less. Because that's roughly the amount of attention you'll get from a journalist if you're lucky, given how under the gun today's reporters are. The lesson here: Whatever you have to say, keep it short and sweet. Because the second it starts coming out of your mouth, listeners will already be vetting the topic's potential, knowing it'll have to both make sense to and hook readers/viewers in even less time--e.g., two sentences or less.
3.Tailor for every outletRepeat to yourself until it sinks in: One size does not fit all when it comes to pitching media outlets. Every publication effectively has its own singular approach and voice when it comes to covering topics, and actually consists of a collection of numerous smaller vehicles (front-of-book sections, feature wells, etc.) that do so in varied ways. Likewise, every editor and reporter has their own way of tackling these tasks, meaning it pays to read up on and be intimately familiar with both the magazine and specific section you're angling for a spot in. Always bear in mind that different audiences have different needs, as well: You wouldn't provide seasoned HR professionals with the same spiel that you would a readership of casual job seekers. By keeping these points in mind and pitching a section and article format that properly aligns with the story you're promoting, you'll avoid being discounted as a poor fit right off the bat.
4.Prepare assets in advanceFun fact: Deadlines can be painfully tight in the age of real-time journalism. And inevitably, whether it's high-resolution artwork, product fact sheets or a quick phone call request, you're going to be asked for supporting information or materials on any story pitch. So do yourself a favor: From screen grabs to sample copies and supporting videos, make sure all of these materials are prepared well in advance and are ready to be provided to journalists on tight turnarounds. You won't just save yourself the hassle of having to put out a fire when it inevitably ignites. You'll also minimize chances of missing a key opportunity or torching a reporter's trust simply because you couldn't manage to supply a few screenshots, throw up an FTP file transfer or handle another task at the last minute.
5.Issue press releases and media advisoriesPress releases and media advisories--simple summaries that outline breaking news announcements or let reporters know that experts are available for interview--make an easy, effective way to communicate your sales pitch. Never written one before? Don't sweat it: Dozens of free templates exist online. Once done, assemble a list of media members that you'd like to approach (the more targeted the better); then blast the document out. While chances of receiving an immediate or overwhelming response are minimal, it still makes a handy reference point should you pique a journalist's interest, making it simple to see what you're offering at a glance. An important rule of thumb here: Always include contact info in these documents that includes e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and be sure to respond with alacrity to any queries that come in.
6.Follow up on correspondenceIssuing a press release is all well and good, whether via traditional wires or free online services. However, it's only one step in a properly planned PR strategy. Consider how many e-mails you receive in your Inbox on a given day and then triple it--that's roughly the amount of information your average reporter is dealing with. Therefore, it's imperative that you follow up on initial queries with an e-mail or phone call once a respectful amount of time has passed and repeat as needed at appropriate intervals. Don't be offended if you don't get a response, either. With staffing levels down, deadlines tight and more folks competing for attention than ever, not everything will make the cut, and time-strapped journalists don't always have the bandwidth to send a formal response. Roll with it--with a daily, weekly or even hourly need for breaking news, there's always room to connect on other stories later.
7.Don't carpet-bomb reportersWhen it comes to media outreach, keenly focused efforts yield greater impact than taking a shotgun approach. Accordingly, for each outlet you plan on reaching out to, pick one or two points of contact with the greatest relevancy vs. spamming dozens of editors. That way, you minimize the number of touchpoints to keep up with and ensure you can give these individuals the most attention in terms of outreach and follow-up. You also make sure six editors don't show up at an editorial planning meeting ready to propose a hot new idea that just coincidentally happens to sound the exact same from every one of them.
8.Keep your promisesPitching a "revolutionary new approach to e-commerce" or piece of software that promises to "redefine data warehousing as we know it"? Great--just be certain you've got the goods to back it up, lest journalists feel swindled, underwhelmed or that they've pointlessly wasted hours on a wild goose chase. Likewise, don't promise an exclusive story or breaking interview that you're unable to deliver or have to cancel at the last minute. Remember: Broadcasters and writers have bosses, external vendors (readers/viewers) and internal stakeholders that they must report to as well, and a limited amount of time and resources to please all parties. Time is precious--be cognizant of what you're offering in return.
9.Stress relationship buildingStories come and go on a daily basis--people you'll work with at various outlets who effectively act as gatekeepers for each publication's industry-specific coverage, not so much. This being the case, one can't afford to go about wantonly burning bridges, and it's imperative to establish the same healthy working relationship with reporters that you would with anyone you work with day in and day out. It pays to respect media members' opinions. If they don't feel a story is a fit, acknowledge it and move on instead of going for the hard sell. (Hint: It's perfectly OK to ask why so you'll be better-equipped the next time you have a pitch to field.) Similarly, should they write something you don't agree with, rather than trying to browbeat a correction or apology out of them, be proactive and attempt to balance things out with a future posting. Moral of the story: Think long-term here, and you'll be well on your way to a front-page showing.
10. Establish a winning track recordIn keeping with the aforementioned item, it's vital to be trustworthy, considerate and professional in all dealings with the press. (Doubly so considering that every employee is a direct reflection on the company and brand they represent.) Remember: A publicist's manner, availability and courteousness are always under scrutiny--even when that publicist is also the company's CEO. This doesn't mean you should kiss up to reporters or can't join them for the occasional drink. Rather, just be approachable and consistent in your performance, and willing to go that extra mile to give everything a personal touch. It's crucial to be honest and forthcoming, and it's important to be just as responsive when tackling tough questions as easy ones--that's how you build trust. Likewise, there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction: Often, an on-site visit here or handshake there, regardless of whether you're actually pitching something, can help build tremendous empathy.