My conversation started last week with a CEO of an LA-based vitamin company that makes a supplement to enhance cognition. He said, “I want to hack the media relations process because agencies have never been able to deliver the coverage I expect, and I’ve worked the with Edelman’s of the world.”
While I’m not here to rain criticism on my colleagues work in these large agencies, I think this gives us opportunity to re-exam media relations, because there’s some things you just can’t hack. Media relations is like an iceberg. It’s a beautiful thing to see, but what lies beneath the water is more majestic, more substantive and allows the tip to float above sea level.
Today, if you haven’t noticed, we live in a world where folks like to hack things. There’s even a blog dedicated to such ingenious ways to live life smarter, better, and beat The System at its own game — it’s LifeHacker. But not everything can be hacked the way this young CEO thought, and probably still believes.
The Purpose of Media Relations
Media relations is both science and and art. It’s communication and relationship building with journalists that serves a dual purpose:
- Journalists need news their readers want to read, and public relations professionals are one outlet where journalist can get that news.
- Companies have news they need to communicate, or news to influence that can improve what they’re doing, and journalists offer that conduit.
From these, businesses earn coveted news coverage, which connects them to the general public that includes their customers, stakeholders and others important to their success. The path, however, to earning media coverage is never guaranteed as this young CEO thought it should. He told me, “I want to pay-for-placement and tie your efforts to a tangible measurement.” He continued, “Ultimately, I want the benchmark to be sales, but for now I’m only willing to pay for the stories you place. That’s how I want to hack the system.”
The guarantee of media placement is this young CEO’s misunderstanding. While I didn’t used the following example, one of my colleagues used this vivid explanation to illustrate why media coverage is never guaranteed.
When A Standing Senator Looses Media Attention
On April 19, 1995 Senator Richard Lugar was poised to announce his candidacy for president in Indianapolis. The media where represented — NBC, CBS, ABC — the typical national broadcasters and print journalists too. It is a big deal when a respected Senator announces his run for the White House. Unfortunately, Timothy McVeigh, a domestic terrorist, stole Lugar’s thunder. McVeigh detonated a bomb that killed men, women and children and reduced the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to rubble in downtown Oklahoma City. Immediately media professionals turned their attention away from Lugar — understandably — to cover the McVeigh mayhem.
Senator Lugar didn’t get the media coverage his team had worked for, and there was a ton of work that went into that day’s press conference. Bigger news caught the media attention.
The Anatomy of Media Relations
Although Senator Lugar’s story is an extreme example, editors pull stories all the time for less serious matters than terrorist bombings, and we can never be sure just why they run with one story over another. But we can hedge our bets if we follow a method, which can’t and shouldn’t be hacked. It’s there for a reason.
Research and Message Development
There are two types of research in media relations: message development and outlet targeting. Let’s start with message development.
Journalists like news, so companies need to find out what’s newsworthy about their doings. On the other hand, a company also wants to include it’s core messages into the news. This is the first stage of developing a media relations strategy. The second phase is identifying media outlet likely to be interested in publishing or broadcasting that news your company finds important.
Delivering the News to the Media
After a company has identified news, it’s time to package it for the media. There’s a tone of different ways to do this, however, many times it involves using one or all of these tools:
- News Release
- Media Advisory
- Taking Points
- Ready-to-Run Story
- The pitch
While you may never use all of these — it’s important to know they exist. And to the CEO I mentioned above, the research, writing, pitching and distribution of these are billable work, just like attorneys will bill for research and writing. Like the attorney, you’re paying public relations professionals for their intellectualism.
The Only Way to Guarantee Media Placement
Back to the story of that CEO I met. Gaming the media relations system won’t work. The way we go about media relations may change with the invention of new social media tools, such as Pinterest. Carrie Morgan writes about “Using Pinterest and Secret Pinboards for Media Pitching” for Social Media Today. But the process won’t change. There will always be research, planning, writing, continuous relationship building, and a little luck.
However, you can guarantee media placement if you buy it — that’s called advertising. The new, old, big thing — all the range these days — is native advertising. Check out “Making Native Advertising Work for Your Digital PR Strategy.”